Anna Funder's first book, Stasiland, was a non-fiction work that explored life in East Germany during the Cold War. Her new book is a novel but one based very closely on real events. [amtap book:isbn=0670920398]
All That I Am tells the story a group of German activists during the 1930s as they try to warn the world of the threat from Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.Ruth Becker is living in Australia and coming to the end of her life. She receives a parcel containing a notebook that belonged to the left-wing playwright Ernst Toller. Funder's narrative switches between Becker, remembering in the present, and Toller, in his hotel room in 1939 working on his autobiography.
Becker is based on Ruth Blatt, who Funder met in Australia, and her story includes many real people, such as Ruth's husband Hans Wesemann, her cousin Dora Fabian and Toller.
Fabian is the centre of the novel. She's a strange character and a slightly unrealistic one, though it's worth remembering that our two narrators adored her and we see her through their eyes. She seems a little too perfect to me but it's believable that Becker and Toller saw her that way.
At first the group are in Germany working in opposition to Hitler but it soon becomes too dangerous and they flee to London. As refugees, they attempt to continue their work but discover that the British establishment is reluctant to help and that Hitler's forces are not afraid to operate abroad.
It's a horrifying story and one that illuminates a period about which I knew little. Funder has been criticised for taking liberties with the truth but it's important to remember that this is a novel. The background is real as are many of the characters but the precise events here should not assumed to be true. From the little I've read, Funder's version of Dora's fate, for example, differs considerably from what the available evidence suggests.
I don't think it's worth paying too much attention to that criticism. Funder has written a moving story about an immensely courageous people whose voices were ignored at the time and have largely been lost in history. She has brought them vividly to life.