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Far to Go

by Alison Pick

Although set in the months leading up to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Alison Pick’s second novel does not wrestle with sweeping ideological conceits about the nature of evil or the burden of memory. The Holocaust is faintly alluded to in the novel by hushed voices on the radio or a body found in the street, but it is never a fully realized presence. While Far to Go is not a Holocaust story in the traditional sense, it is a poignant work that brims with feeling.

The story focuses on the Bauers, a secular Jewish Czech family, as they cope with the twin struggles of an increasingly anti-Semitic cultural climate and a strained marriage. Marta, the Bauers’ nanny, is the novel’s eyes and ears, and also its heart. Naive to a fault and crippled by a compulsive desire for a family, Marta is the novel’s only fully realized character. Pavel, the Bauer patriarch, is a lionized, wooden white knight, and his wife, Anneliese, is spoiled and childlike. Seen entirely through the lens of Marta’s simplistic worldview, neither is granted any nuance or complexity.

The novel stumbles through a number of sections told by an unknown narrator, whose voice is woven into the central narrative and whose (easily guessed) identity is revealed as the novel progresses. Pick’s subject matter is compelling enough to stand alone without this contrived plot device.

But setting aside these missteps, Pick’s gorgeous writing is to be savoured: her prose is enhanced by a poet’s sensibility. She creates a richly imagined, sensuous world where flavours and aromas waft through the pages and every detail is vividly drawn. Far to Go is at its most moving in its final section, as Pepik is shipped off to England as part of a Kindertransport. Here, Pick heartbreakingly renders the child’s terror and confusion at being separated from his family. His disorientation mirrors our own as place and time are blurred in the narrative. Ultimately, the aching need to belong emerges as the emotional pulse of this deeply felt novel.