FAR TO GO by Alison Pick (Anansi), 314 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Some fiction subjects can't fail to deliver a knockout punch: prison life, sexual abuse, the Holocaust. That's why so many amateurs have produced powerful works on those subjects. Just describe what happened in plain language and you're in business.
But an accomplished writer can bring something more to the canon. Alison Pick's (The Sweet Edge) Holocaust novel, Far To Go, puts a new spin on moral compromise and, especially, the experience of young children living in Jewish households where the growing terror becomes unbearable.
It's 1939, and Czech secular Jews Pavel and Annaliese Bauer's comfortable life is slowly slipping away. As Hitler makes inroads into the country, they have to make some decisions. They move the family, including their six-year-old son, Pepik, and nanny, Marta, to Prague, then make a run for Paris but finally resort to sending Pepik to England via the Kindertransport program.
Woven into the narrative is a contemporary strand suggesting that all was not what it seemed with the Bauers, and, though documents scattered through the text reveal that the adult Bauers did not survive, Pick skilfully ramps up the tension before we discover exactly what happened once Pepik left home.
But it's Pepik's situation before he left that takes the narrative to a new level. A two-page meditation on how painfully perceptive very young children are about approaching trauma is a revelation, and the adult Pepik's ambivalence when he learns why he never heard from his parents after he boarded the train - the scene on the station platform is harrowing - gives depth to a devastated character.
Marta, the nanny, is fascinating. Pepik is closer to her than to his mother, and she has a crush on Pavel. The Bauers have a strong commitment to her, but Pick understands class, so when it comes to her employers Marta vacillates wildly between appreciation and resentment.
Weaving Czech history with a contemporary mystery, Far To Go shows terrific craft and emotional intelligence. A winner.