I purchased this book from my local bookstore a few months ago on the strength of the author’s name, having read and appreciated her non-fiction work, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, which, as its title indicates, is an account of life in the former East Germany.
This is Funder’s first novel and a most impressive piece of work. Although it is fiction, it deals with real people and real events; that is, the activities of German socialist activists who were expelled or who escaped from Germany in 1933 and who thereafter worked to make Great Britain and Europe aware of what was happening under the Nazi regime. Central amongst the characters are left-wing playwright Ernst Toller and political activist Dora Fabian.
The novel is in the form of two inter-connected first person narratives. The narrators are separated in place and time. The first is Ruth Becker, an elderly woman living in Sydney in 2011. The other narrator is Ernst Toller, adding to his autobiography in New York in 1939. The narratives weave in and out of one another, dealing with many of the same events from the different perspectives of the narrators. The link between the narrators – apart from their political views – is their love for Dora Fabian, known from the beginning of the novel to have died in London in the mid-1930s. Within each narrative are time shifts. Sometimes the narrators refer to their present lives. At other times they are recalling events of the recent past (in the case of Ernst Toller) or the distant past (in the came of Ruth Becker).
The narrative structure has the potential to be confusing. The alternating chapters are headed with the name of the respective narrator, which minimises actual confusion. However, at least at the beginning of the novel the narrators’ voices are not sufficiently different to easily distinguish one from the other. However, as the novel progresses, this becomes less of an issue. I found that the alternating narratives drew me into the stories of Toller, Ruth and Dora in a way I don’t think would have occurred had the novel been in linear third person narrative form.
Overall, I found this to be a thoroughly engrossing work. It drew me into a world I knew nothing about and has made me want to read more about the people and events with which it is concerned. In my view, that should always be the effect of good historical fiction.