Viking £16.99

All That I Am, By Anna Funder

The locked-room mystery that provides a warning from history

The Australian writer Anna Funder follows her Samuel Johnson Prize-winning Stasiland with a novel challenging the frontiers between historical fact and the creative imagination.

One morning in 2001, Ruth Wesemann, an elderly German woman now living in Sydney, receives in the post a tattered old notebook. Addressed to her by one Ernst Toller, it has apparently been unearthed in the basement of a condemned New York hotel, and when she reads it, memories flood in.

In 1933, Ruth, her husband, Hans, and Ernst were part of a group of young left-wing activists who fled to London when Hitler came to power. Ernst's notebook tells their story, with particular emphasis on a fourth member of the group, Ruth's cousin and Ernst's great love, Dora Fabian. His narrative and Ruth's version of events are woven together with flashes from the present into a seamless and powerful tale.

Although the early sections of the story in Germany – Ernst's part in the 1918 revolution, his subsequent imprisonment and political writings; Ruth and Dora's youth and early careers – are sometimes a little dryly told, with events taking precedence over protagonists' interior viewpoints, the characters leap to colourful life once they're transplanted from their homeland. The experiences of political refugees in Britain in the Thirties are still not commonly known, and Funder creates a moving, horrifying picture of their fearfulness; of the smugness and claustrophobia of the culture in which they found themselves but were excluded from. Perhaps worst of all, in the light of the cataclysm that followed, is the way their warning voices were smothered, because the English did not wish to hear what they were saying.

Ruth, Hans and Dora settle in a flat in Great Ormond Street, Ernst with a new girlfriend near Hampstead Heath. They all spend their time, but particularly Dora – vividly drawn as a petite and brilliant feminist-socialist – liaising with contacts in mainland Europe, and trying to spread information about the true nature of Hitlerism. Funder portrays what dangerous work this was, particularly given that the Gestapo was active in London, something the establishment would never believe at the time.

This part of the novel is based on a real-life mystery: in 1933, the bodies of two German émigrés were found in a Bloomsbury bedroom – locked from the inside – in an apparent suicide pact. In the novel, the inquest seems a sham, not so much because the coroner is colluding in some high-level cover-up, but because the assertions of the dead women's friends' seem impossible nonsense.

Funder became a friend of the real-life Ruth Wesemann in Ruth's later years in Sydney, and her notes on sources indicate how closely she's tried to base the novel on what is known. At the same time, the book is far more than "faction"; she has successfully transformed the material into a narrative of individual endeavour and survival, that examines universal human themes.

Above all, it is a book with a strong moral compass. Her activist characters are pushed to the limit of endurance. Some turn, some break, none is perfect. But Dora and Ruth, especially, convey a sense of truthfulness and decency that transcends their time and should inspire us, even now, to expose injustice and tyranny.

A Gathering Storm, by Rachel Hore is published by Simon & Schuster

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