Far To Go by Alison Pick (2010) 311 p.
I picked this up back in 2011 when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and I wanted to read all the nominees; however, it was cut from the final shortlist before I read it, so I never got around to it.
Many of the books longlisted that year had a twin in terms of theme and subject; Far To Go and Half-Blood Blues are both novels dealing with lesser-known aspects of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. In the case of Half-Blood Blues this was black German citizens; in the case of Far To Go it is the Kindertransport, a rescue mission in the year preceding the war which successfully took nearly 10,000 Jewish children to sanctuary in the United Kingdom from Nazi Germany’s sphere of influence.
Far To Go takes place in Czechoslovakia, first in the Sudetenland and then in Prague, following the Bauer family: father Pavel, mother Anneliese, nanny Marta, and six-year-old Pepik. The Bauers are secular, non-practising Jews, but of course this does not matter to the Nazis. As the oppressions upon their freedom slowly multiply, and as the continent slouches towards war, the Bauer family must make a difficult decision about whether or not to send Pepik away. Much of the novel is about the uncertainty the Jews of Europe faced in the lead-up to the Holocaust. It seems incredible to someone in the modern day that Jews would not take any opportunity they could to flee, but we have the benefit of hindsight; it would have been a difficult thing to abandon a hometown, a family business, friends and relatives, when one had no idea that the oppression would culminate in genocide. It’s particularly awful when reading of families who fled to places which they believed would be safe but which we know were not: Prague, Amsterdam, Paris.
More importantly, though, Far To Go is about the fog of history and memory, tying in with the fate of the transported children themselves: their lives were saved, but they were cut off from their families, their culture, their history. The Kindertransport was only intended to be temporary, but the families left behind almost always died in the camps; these Jewish children were cut adrift. Segments of Far To Go are narrated by a mysterious woman who similarly feels a sense of loss, of not belonging, despite not being from the Kindertransport herself. By the end of the novel it is clear that it has been, somewhat, a piece of metafiction; an imagining of a past that is impossible to reconstruct.
Alison Pick is more well-known in Canada as a poet than an author, and Far To Go is only her second novel. Her prose is competent and flows well, yet never sat quite right with me; too often the dialogue feels constructed, the writing feels a little uncertain of itself. This is less noticeable later in the book, as more momentous and emotional events are occurring, but for the first 100-odd pages it felt a bit awkward. She also sometimes feels to be trying a bit too hard to establish a sense of time, awkwardly inserting bits of contemporary culture (“She could see a copy of the new Henry Miller book, Tropic of Cancer.”)
In this sense it is similar to Half-Blood Blues in more than just subject matter; I would regard both novels as good, but not great. (Interestingly, both also have a protagonist who betrays loved ones to the Nazis as retribution for their own perceived betrayals, and are then forever haunted by that moment of selfishness.) Half-Blood Blues is probably the slightly better novel, which is perhaps why it was shortlisted over Far To Go. Neither, in my eyes, ever really deserved to win it. They are both competent, compelling, important books in which the author successfully instils the emotion and passion necessary for such a serious subject; yet I felt they also both lacked something, some final spark which would have carried them over the finish line and made them truly great.