I need to read a book about Nazi Germany like I need a hole in the head: my thoughts when I hear the latest book club title.
But I warm to it immediately as it opens with a trio of quotes, including a much-loved Nick Cave lyric:
Outside my window, the world has gone to war / are you the one that I’ve been waiting for?
Toller and Ruth alternate to tell of their group of friends’ story in the years leading up to World War II, as to the world outside Germany.
When Hitler assumes power, Ruth is in the bath. Her husband is mixing a mojito with his new lime-squasher. But as Hitler’s deadly intentions towards those who do not share his beliefs become quickly clear, the group take refuge in London.
Toller speaks in his London hotel room in 1939, as war begins, and Ruth from where she is living out the end of her days in modern Sydney.
They remember Dora, Toller’s lover and Ruth’s cousin. As Ruth’s strength and short-term memory decline, memories crowd in.
She and Toller reconstruct Dora, always driving action from the background – an anonymous correspondent, a translator, an information smuggler. Rarely is she the centre of attention. Yet she is in the forefront always for Toller and Ruth.
It is the ones we love we remember most. We have grown to be who we are around them, as around a stake. And when the stake is gone?
I have never been a reader of non-fiction, but when I look back over this blog I see a newfound love of almost-true stories.
These tales have in common their gripping narratives, and this is no different; there is not a dull page.
There is the building sense of dread that comes with any account of Hitler’s misdeeds, so evil they are even now almost unbelievable – just as the British, harbouring the refugees, found them.
But it’s not this alone that compels. Ruth’s story is told at first in snatches, but becomes increasingly intense as she withdraws first to a hospital bed and then to her own mind, interrupted only by visits from doctors and her cleaner.
She pushes aside the curtain with a swoosh and there she is, a huffing, and puffing reminder of my other life, the outside one with biscuits and banter and sunshine walks.
Ruth succumbs to this. The story is more real now to her, twisting and racing.
They have added something to the drip. It is collapsing time. I see things I have imagined so many times they are fact to me. And other things I have known without seeing.
The problem with life is that you can only live it blindly, in one direction. Memory has its own ideas; it snatches elements of story from whenever, tries to put them together. It comes back at you from all angles, with all that you later knew, and gives you the news.
Though it is a story of war, above all it is a story of people and of love, as the best histories always are.
We were the two for whom she was the sun. We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going.
One point: I don’t like its title or its cover. As one book club member suggested, it seems much like something a publisher would recommend Funder call it to attract the ladies’ market. I can’t really see the relevance of the title.
But the wishy-washy title and cover belie the book’s deadly seriousness, finesse and the author’s remarkable analytic and storytelling skill.
It is not for the faint of heart, but to those who want a story to make their pulse pound and their heart ache: this will not disappoint.