I spent the first half of this book almost positive that it was an entirely unnecessary literary contribution. It’s a fictionalised version of real events and real people so why not just read a history book? It does a lot of info dumping, just like a history book, with too much telling and not enough showing as a means of proving the immense amount of research that has clearly been done. But by the time I finished, none of that seemed to matter. I was utterly seduced.
Ruth is coming to the end of her life in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. She unexpectedly receives a manuscript in the mail; it’s an autobiography written by revolutionary Ernst Toller, someone from her former life. And suddenly she’s swept back to growing up in Germany as the Great War rages. The most important person in her life is her older cousin, Dora. Together, they become part of the resistance that watches the rise and rise of Hitler and is determined to fight him.
By 1933, Hitler is in control and the members of the resistance are being kidnapped and murdered. Ruth, her husband, Hans, and Dora flee to London where they live in limbo. Their status as refugees means they can’t work but Ruth’s parents, who are German but live in Poland because of a changed border, are wealthy and send money to support them. Their status as refugees also means they aren’t supposed to engage in political activities and getting caught doing so could see them sent back to Germany to face certain death. It doesn’t stop them though; they know how important it is to show the rest of the world what’s really going on.
The story is told in alternating chapters narrated by Ruth, who remembers her story through the distant lens of old age, and Ernst, as he updates his previously written autobiography from a New York hotel room in 1939 to include details he had left out in order to be discreet. Ruth has the naiveté and hope of a young resistance fighter but Ernst is wracked with depression and despair because he already knows how it all ends (or at least how the war begins).
When I started reading this book, I didn’t realise that they were almost all real people. I foolishly googled Ernst Toller just to check if he was one of them and then got caught up in reading his Wikipedia entry. I would highly recommend not doing it. It didn’t ruin the book but it would have been a better experience for me if I hadn’t pre-empted the ending.
If you’re expecting a comprehensive history of Hitler’s impact on Germany, All That I Am isn’t that book. It’s specific to a very small group of upper class resisters and their experiences. But you will likely still learn plenty, particularly that the Second World War didn’t just come out of nowhere. The people in this book foresaw the brutality and then experienced it firsthand all before the war ever started and under a legitimately elected government. But no one would listen to them. There are lessons in there that seem especially relevant for today’s incredibly uncertain times where we are crying out for leaders we can rally behind for the greater good of everyone instead of just ourselves. “Fear is the psychological foundation of dictatorship,” Ernst Toller wrote.
Even though the book is set in a very specific period of time, it has a timeless quality, which probably comes down to the beautiful writing because sometimes the characters – despite their noble cause – aren’t always easy to empathise with. But perhaps it’s their flaws that make their lives and their deaths so much more heartbreaking.
I imagine this book is studied in high school English classes and it is perfect for that purpose but it doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of book that reveals more layers in further readings. Its power is in the way it builds up, revealing its layers as it goes. Because of that, it doesn’t feel like the kind of book anyone would want to read over and over. But once is enough. Once was remarkable.
Verdict: a worthy Miles Franklin Prize winner.
*First published on Goodreads 7 October 2019