‘Far to Go’ by Alison Pick

Book Reviews

Far to Go coverReviewed by Shane Neilson

Historical novels are commonplace. I understand the strategic reasons behind this fact of contemporary publishing: writers can cheat a little in terms of setting, relying upon grander narratives to imbue their own small stories with osmotic power. For their part, readers can benefit from the transfer of that power as a kind of shortcut to true feeling: a romance is a romance, for example, but a romance during the Second World War is inherently more dramatic.

The bigger the history, the bigger the awards payoff, the bigger the sales. I can’t help but think this is the genesis of Far To Go, Alison Pick’s second novel.

The story is heartbreaking because it involves Jews in eastern Europe shortly before WWII, a period when Hitler was busy taking everything he could –money and life- from Jews in Germany and in the lands he seized. The bulk of the story concerns a gentile governess, Marta, who is in the employ of an assimilated Czech couple. This couple gradually becomes aware of the doom they face, albeit too late (like too many others.) Their son is sent to England on a Kindertransport. He never hears from his family again, until the end of the story, when a meta-narrative trick ties together the unfinished business of the main narrative. But of course we mostly know what happens anyway: after all, we are dealing with Jews, Hitler, and occupied Europe.

Like a traditional romance, the book is comprised of love: the love of the Jewish patriarch for his beautiful wife, the love of all the characters for the small son, the love of the patriarch for the governess. Every decision, every small domestic event in the novel, occurs as a result of this love: for better, but often for worse.

Also like a traditional romance, the prose is not challenging in the least: it mostly flows well, is sparsely metaphorical, and is a mere pretext for plot. Indeed, this book is designed to be read quickly. What happens is much more important than how it happens, style-wise; Pick is clearly writing for the mainstream book clubs.

The problem with Pick’s entry into the genre is its cynicism: she makes some choices that are akin to emotional performance-enhancers. For example, the three main adult characters in the book all die. Of these three, Pick makes it clear very early on that two of them will certainly die. This is inherently dramatic, and makes the reader exchange the hope that the characters might live with a kind of rapt attention. Will this be the time? When will it happen? How will it happen? There’s nothing more –have I said heartbreaking yet? I have!- heartbreaking as a narrative strategy than the correspondence of dead people, and Pick uses such necromantic tools as a frequent prop.

Another problem is the use of ham-handed foreshadowing: Pick becomes perilously addicted to jacking up her narrative. That she makes her characters suffer ever more is not objectionable; that she resorts to base manipulation is. The reader is told, in places, that X or Y decision “ruined” everything that came after. Admittedly, the Jews in Europe did suffer ever more, and Pick is being true as she portrays her characters in this way. But surely the reader doesn’t need to be led by the nose with the prose equivalent of an organist playing DUM-DUM-DUM at climactic points in the narrative.

Then there’s the matter of the story itself. The action hinges on the culpable silence of Marta, the governess. It is perhaps plausible that she would remain silent about her own mistakes; but there is a pivotal moment where her escaping employers pull a kind of Scooby Doo misdirection manoeuvre in which they say “We’re not going to Paris!” in earshot of her that is frankly unbelievable for people as intelligent as they are. That this causes their downfall – DUM DUM DUM– is itself the cause of the downfall of a novel dependent upon plot for its satisfactions.

Which brings me again to the matter of the prose. As the action gains momentum, the prose begins to suffer, albeit not as much as the protagonists. Here’s a snippet. I’ll deliberately choose something romantic:

Here, finally, was the acceptance Marta had longed for all her life. The love she’d so craved. She let Pavel guide her through the breezy evening under the full moon and told herself she had no choice, told herself she wasn’t responsible for whatever had gone on between the Bauers. She knew this wasn’t entirely right, but the truth was that something had been torn open inside her and something even more powerful released. Something swift and warm between herself and Pavel that she was helpless to resist.

Here, finally… longed for all her life… she had no choice… truth torn open inside her… swift and warm… helpless to resist… it’s all overblown, clichéd, a shortcut to real writing. Pick is now making her characters move into their final, decided positions. With haste. And the writing doesn’t hide that haste.

Far to Go is a conventional romance unsuccessfully complicated by a single postmodernist gambit that’s also cynical: it’s as if Pick realized the historical romance field was crowded enough, so her book needed a twist to make it stand out in the field. It was the wrong choice — Pick having her cake and eating it too. If she trusted the real story, which was the story of the Jewish couple and Marta, there was certainly far to go there. But Pick inserted the narrator as a self-reflective character in the story, a character who comments upon the writing of the story, thereby undermining the natural goodwill owed to the romance genre.

I will give Pick credit, though, for her integrity. The juries might have wanted a different ending. Far to Go is not a happy story, even though it does manage to sometimes convey joy in spite of menace. But then how could it be a happy story?

Anansi |  320 pages | cloth | $29.95 | ISBN #978-0887842382

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Shane Neilson

SHANE NEILSON is a poet from New Brunswick. He will publish The River and The Road, a book of criticism on Maritime poetry, with the Porcupine’s Quill in 2017.