Sunday, March 27, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

This review appeared in the Stratford Gazette on March 24, 2011
Written by Wendy Hicks, Librarian

Far to go by Alison Pick (314 p.)
@ SPL: FIC Pick

I don’t know about you, but my bookshelves and reading logs are peppered with fictional accounts of World War II: The English patient, Suite francaise, Schindler’s list.  And there are times – like now, in late winter – when the tragedies inherent in these plots are challenging.  I thought as much as I scanned Far to go’s dust jacket.  In spite of myself, I was hooked after just a few lines.  

2nd time Canadian novelist Alison Pick situates the story of 20-something nanny, Marta and her wealthy Jewish employers in 1939, in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia.  A separate story line – that of a twenty first century professor clinically examining this same time & place – runs alongside until the final chapters.  While the modern piece intrigues and informs, it is Marta’s tale that lifts the novel, and makes it extraordinary. 

The reader is pulled right into daily urban European life, circa 1939. While there are pockets of new and unsettling brutality, Marta’s world still hums warmly along as the novel opens. Her charge, 6 year old Pepik Bauer, adores her.  His parents, Pavel and Anneliese Bauer lead civilized, cultured lives and provide Marta a comfortable, loving home.  It is these characters – so fully and beautifully rendered by Ms. Pick – that keep one reading.   

When these characters speak, act, think – the changes wrought by human conflict are distilled. This is not World War II on a big map but rather, it is the same war on a more imaginable scale.  The heart rending decisions and mounting pressures on the Bauer household because of what they see in their own neighborhood and experience with their own community are no less revealing than a front line soldier’s.  Indeed, in some ways they are more compelling -- life was fine, lovely, and then, incrementally it creeps towards slaughter.   At one point, crowds gathering on their streets start seeming menacing rather than celebratory, and Marta thinks, “The day was losing shape, like a worn-out undergarment.  Time coming loose, a thread at the cuff.  Marta twirled a strand around her forefinger.  Indeed, all of the continent was coming unraveled; the thoughts of this one small individual allow a crystal clear image of life there, at that moment. 

The end of the Nazi regime in Czecholslovakia and elsewhere is well documented, but you will find yourself reading this book right to the end to see how this small war story ends.  Even if it is the end of winter.

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