Over the last couple of months I’ve found myself in a book club, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but always struggled to find a club that was 1) accepting new members, 2) reading the kinds of books that I enjoy and 3) with people I could find a connection with. In the end a friend and I started our own, at first very ad hoc but now more organised and in line with standard book club practices. We have recruited a few extra members and the four of us – all Mums with young families that need some intellectual stimulation and discussion, and wine! – meet monthly. We discuss the book or books (we sometimes do two a month) as well as all sort of other book and non-book related topics. It’s a very pleasant way to spend an evening. All That I Am was originally a book club book, but one that was abandoned soon after selection because it was a difficult read and not one that connected with the other members particularly (okay, that’s probably not standard book club practice and we probably wouldn’t do that often, but that’s the benefit of starting your own club, we can make up our own rules). I say this out of honesty, but not because I felt this same away about the book. I stuck with it and enjoyed many things about it.
Firstly, All That I Am is set in Germany and England between the wars, with Hitler and the Nazi party gaining momentum in the decade leading up to the start of WWII. The book, based on real people and real events, tells the story of a group of anti-Hitler/Nazis activists who seek exile in Britain. At the time the rest of Europe including Britain, were not particularly open to Jewish exiles from Germany. They were banned from working and all political activity was disallowed and could lead to deportation back to Germany – a death sentence for most. As well Hitler’s SS were not opposed to operating outside the bounds of Germany’s boarders to stop dissidents. This group took on considerable personal risk and lived with financial insecurity as they continued to speak and write against Hitler and his actions in Germany.
Narrators Ruth – who eventually finds refuge in Syndey, Australia – and Ernst Toller, a writer and academic, both love the vivacious and passionate Dora, a woman of heroic proportions who pays the ultimate price for her activities. The voices of Ruth and Ernst are filled with sorrow and regret, a deeply felt pain that never leaves. I found it a stirring and desperately sad portrait of a period in time and a group of people I knew nothing about. The fact that there were agitators against the rise of the Nazi party, and in particular Hitler, trying to alert the world to what was happening and where it might lead and that these people were dismissed by the rest of the world is despairing knowing what we now know happened under Hitler. Those who survived must have felt enormous powerlessness and guilt for not having succeeded in getting that message across. Those who ignored it must have felt they had blood on their hands too.
Where this book loses it’s readership is its slow, heavy beginning. It takes a long time to get into and to find a connection with the four main characters. It is understandable given the nature of the story, and the necessary background information and the author’s history as a non-fiction writer. The structure was also a little clunky at times, as it flicks between several different timelines. For me it was well worth persisting with, but for others it may not be. I shall leave it to you to decide that.