When is a novel not a novel?

Far to Go by Alison Pick is a biographical novel, that is to say it is based on her own research into the journey her Czech grand-parents had, the life they had before the life they had not.  This is a different sort of Holocaust literature, because the main character is a child from the Kindertransport, who like many others got lost in the system because the couple who agreed to ‘have’ him, couldn’t cope and passed him to a Catholic orphanage.

Years later, hard to say how many, but perhaps 45 or 50, a woman who belongs to a team researching the lives of Kindertransport children, post the two reunions one in 1999 and a second one later realises that she has ‘found’ someone important to her personally.

If like me, you lived in Hampstead or in Hampstead Garden Suburb even if you never realised it, you were surrounded by people whose background echoed this story, in every shop you would hear elderly women and men with foreign accents.  I knew some of them, and their stories entangled themselves with mine.

Pipek did not know his own story, he was only 6 when he was put on the train.  The trauma of the separation from his parents and his Nanny Marta, were great enough.  The couple who took him in were well meaning, but their own tragedy meant that they could no longer bear to keep him.  So he was passed on, still only 6, to an orphanage, where for the second time, ironically, he became a Catholic.

Fortunately, for the researcher anyway, Mrs Millings kept all the letters sent by his parents, a valuable watch and a photograph.  And because the Germans also kept meticulous records, she was able to connect the threads and arrive at a conclusion, one which meant everything to Pipek and to her.

This is a marvellous book, fully deserving of its place in the Man Booker Long List.  Let us hope it also reaches the Shortlist.  No doubt it will also cause the same storm as Schindler’s Ark, which went on to win and which everyone said was not a novel.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Modern History

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