My story “is reconstructed from fossil fragments, much as you might draw skin and feathers over an assembly of dinosaur bones, to fully see the beast.”
So says Ann Funder in the afterword of her novel. I’m not sure it matters if you read this novel as pure fiction or fictionalised biography. I went into this book knowing nothing about the real life characters portrayed and found it worked equally well as elegant literary fiction and page turning thriller.
Basically All that I am is about a group of German dissidents who are forced to leave Hitler’s Germany and take up residence in London where they are impoverished and hunted. It soon becomes clear London offers no guarantee of safety, especially when it’s known they have at least one traitor in their midst. The novel has two narrators – Ernst Toller, the playwright and Ruth Blatt, whom Funder got to know late in her life and no doubt sparked the inspiration for this novel – but the character who fascinates Funder and who this novel is essentially about is Dora Fabien. To both Tiller and Ruth, the passionate and independent Dora is an indispensable flame of their wellbeing. A few times I questioned why Funder needed two narrators, especially because there’s an unevenness about their narratives – mostly it’s Ruth who tells the story with Toller appearing briefly in interludes and sometimes you wonder why Toller is there at all as a voice, especially as Funder takes liberties with what Ruth could know – when necessary Ruth will provide information she could not have known at the time. And also because as voices Funder makes no effort to distinguish them stylistically. But this was a minor misgiving and what the dual narrative lacks in artistry it makes up for in supplying dramatic tension.
It’s certainly refreshing to read about female heroism in a more everyday and therefore more moving guise. WW2 heroines have begun to be turned by novelists into super powered comic book characters –The Nightingale springs to mind. For example, when you read accounts of female SOE agents it’s not any facility with weapons you admire, it’s the extraordinary grace under pressure they often show when passing through a Gestapo check with something fatally incriminating on their person. Funder, though perhaps guilty of romanticising Dora for added dramatic effect, evokes this courage brilliantly through Dora. Dora doesn’t perform a single showy courageous act and yet one is moved by her steadfast mental courage throughout the course of the novel.
Basically, though sometimes lacking in exciting artistry, Funder gets all the basics right in this novel – it’s pacey, it’s exciting, it’s moving and it’s also a novel written with lots of heart.