Fictionalizing real people and events is laden with benefits and peril: history provides stranger-than-fiction plots yet real-life characters are never fully the author’s own. That fact flits through the mind reading Funder’s riveting first novel tracing the story of four German anti-Nazi activists—the celebrated playwright Ernst Toller, the feminist writer Dora Fabian, her cousin Ruth Blatt and Blatt’s husband, journalist Hans Wesemann. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the four flee to London to continue their dangerous Resistance work.
The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters written by Ernst Toller and Ruth Blatt over a 63-year divide: Toller in 1939 as he finishes his autobiography in a New York hotel room; Blatt as an old woman living in Australia in 2002. The tale, packed with suspense, heroism and betrayal, illuminates a horrific era. Funder’s pellucid prose captures in equal measure political machinations, romantic intrigues and daily life in Bloomsbury amid the intelligentsia and aristocracy. (Even W.H. Auden makes an appearance.)
But Funder, author of the acclaimed Stasiland, uses the epic canvas for more: a meditation on love, loss and how life’s fabric is woven. The wise Blatt is a wry observer, noting a woman on the street is “as square-bottomed and tidy as a tug, a box of cakes dangling from a stork’s triangle from the plastic bag on her arm.” Reflecting on her deep bond with Fabian, she concludes you can’t ever get the “human measure” of someone you love: “You cannot see how someone so huge to you, so remarkable and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin.”
Fiction allows Funder the freedom to resolve history’s loose ends, notably Fabian’s tragic “suicide” in 1935. But her admiration for her characters precludes more complex characterization. Still, one reads All That I Am keen to turn every page while wishing for another ending, as does Blatt, who notes: “The problem with life is that you can only live it blindly, in one direction.” Thankfully that’s one problem fiction doesn’t share.