What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Man Booker Prize Longlist: "Far to Go" by Alison Pick

I'm not a literary prize shortlist junkie. But I reserve the right to make exceptions to this rule... For instance, if I hadn't decided to sample some of the previously-unknown or relatively unknown authors on last year's Man Booker longlist, I wouldn't have stumbled over The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which I loved, much less The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson -- which I said I hoped would win the award when it was still a long shot. (It did...)

This year's longlist was announced on Tuesday, and now that all the frenetic speculation about who's going to be on it is over (notable by their absence are authors like Amitav Ghosh and Graham Swift), I'm deciding which of the 2011 nominees I'll read. The first book I picked up turned out to be [Far to Go] by Alison Pick, a novel that has been released in paperback in the U.S. but that seems to have sailed under the radar so far -- a pity, as it's a very good novel that certainly meets the threshold for being a "thumping good read", even though I'd be surprised to see it make the leap onto the shortlist in a few weeks' time.

You'll need a bit of patience to get into Pick's tale, which starts out with some kind of omniscient observer ruminating on toy trains (with obvious parallels to the cattle cars of the Holocaust, which is the background against which the novel is set), leaps to an archived document, another first person segment, then what turns out to be the story of the sibling of one of the main characters in the book. Finally, you'll get into the main story, told through the eyes of Marta, the Czech (and Christian) nursemaid to the Bauer family, secular and Jewish, living in the Sudetenland in 1938. If you're a historical junkie like me, you'll immediately realize that those facts and dates spell trouble ahead, and you'd be right.

But rather than trying to recount the horrors of the Holocaust itself in fiction -- something I think is doomed to failure -- Pick opts to tell an essentially domestic story of love and betrayal, set in the midst of the years when it finally became clear just what was happening; by the time realization had set in, it was too late for many trapped Jewish families to act. Again, Pick makes a clever decision by choosing to tell the story through Marta's eyes (for reasons that only become clear at the end of the novel); if the Bauers are stubborn in refusing to grasp the implications of the Munich pact, Marta is even more bemused; she simply can't understand why anyone else, especially her lover and the Bauer plant's manager, Ernst, would view the Bauers as anything other than Czech.

But there are undercurrents in the domestic situation. Anneliese Bauer is a troubled woman: her elegant and polished surface conceals much. Pavel Bauer thinks of himself as a Czech nationalist, only to become aware too late that his Jewish identity is something of value. Their five-year-old son, Pepik, clings to Marta in the face of the upheavals that follow the "Kristallnacht" riots. And those tensions lead to betrayals that seem inconceivable.

Pick does a brilliant job of capturing the atmosphere of a small-town Czech community and its cultural divisions; of Prague in the early years of the German occupation; of the world and concerns of the Holocaust researcher whose first-person narrative occasionally interrupts the main story. From the letters and other documents included in the text, we come to know the fates of all the main characters, including the fact that Pepik is one of the children separated from their families and whisked away to safety in the "Kindertransport". What we don't know is how those events come to pass -- or the narrator's relationship to the Bauer family, specifically. Why has the narrator chosen to tell us about this particular family, rather than one of the thousands of others? When that became clear, I was forced to take a step back and rethink the entire nature of the narrative and the concept of the 'unrealiable narrator' took on a new twist. And I suspect it's that revelation -- about the very nature of the story that we've been told -- that raised this novel to the level that it was placed on the Man Booker shortlist.

This is the third novel I've read this summer that focuses on World War II as a domestic event. I've already blogged here about my thoughts on Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You, in which a child's evacuation from wartime London transforms her life and future. Equally underwhelming (to me, at least) was 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson, which displayed the author's heavy hand in the plot from start to finish, and where even the writing succumbed too often to the floridly banal. Both hovered in the 3.3 star range. Where those two failed to rise above the mediocre, this succeeds, despite the initial confusion in the rapidly-shifting perspectives in its first pages. I'd rate it 4.2 stars, and recommend you hunt it down. Available in paperback! and affordably on Kindle, as well.


  1. I didn't know the longlist had been announced!

    Thanks for reviewing this book, I now want to read it and would never have heard of it otherwise.

  2. There are a bunch of books that fall into that category for me, too! I'd spotted one of them in Barnes & Noble and now have it on my Kindle to read, but several haven't even been released in the US yet. I discovered a number of great books this way last year that I might not have heard of otherwise.