All That I Am by Anna Funder (a book review)

Don’t be fooled by the cover of Anna Funder’s All That I am. This achingly beautiful novel is anything but “chick lit”.

all that I am, anna funder, book review, australian literature, midlife, boomers, fifty-something

At 370 pages, it’s a solid read that ribbons through an in-between-the-big-wars time, when lines were blurred between friend and foe.

Funder cleverly chooses two alternating narrative points of view from within the ranks of the four key characters: Ernst Toller and Ruth Becker. Ernst tells us his story from 1939 as an exile in New York while Ruth speaks to us from modern day Sydney, reflecting back 70 years to the nub of the tale. Their alternating perspectives weave a story of love, courage, war, desperation, doubt, regret and unthinkable betrayal that treks from Nazi Germany to London and beyond.

At the heart of the story is Dora, the fiercely committed Nazi resistance activist who never wavers from her ideals and the dangerous struggle of achieving change. She’s a heroine of the highest order. If Dora lived in 2015, she would be an underground sensation … a trending hashtag, achieving change and educating the world through an anonymous identity on multiple social media platforms. I’m certain of it.

For me, All That I Am illuminates the politics of a time I know little about, but have loved discovering. It weds history and emotion to believable characters who I find myself urging on. Sometimes, it feels like a thriller, replete with espionage and faceless men. Who knows who the enemy is?  Through it all is a love story of cousins who are more like sisters and romantic hearts that battle to beat as one.

It’s frightening to reflect on the events of All That I Am, knowing the characters are based on real people. I ask myself: how did we let this happen? And then I remember that we’re still letting similar things happen today. All That I Am speaks to the plight of refugees, people living under despotic regimes, and ordinary citizens hoping for political change and a better way of life. It also speaks to love, loss and trust, to the choices we make in life and how they play out in the bigger world.

What will stay with me most is Anna Funder’s superb prose. It’s imaginative, sometimes ethereal and sometimes sparse. Above all it’s consistent. From the opening paragraph to the very end, every passage features beautifully crafted words. On every page, there’s a sentence, a metaphor or a passage that I wish I’d written. Expositional, descriptive, observational, philosophical or speculative … it is all charmingly expressed.

By example, I found these quotes on random pages as I flipped the book open …

p 243
“Books lay pulled open and broken-backed over the rug: the scrolled curtain-rod ends had been unscrewed, as if they might hold something. They lay oddly on the ground like severed ears, or question marks.”

“It is hard to know when something begins, when the result first becomes possible.  And then there is the other point, the point at which there is no pulling back from what you have set in train. Take this cup from me, Christ said, didn’t he? But by then it was already too late.”

p 129
“In the mirror an ashen-faced man stares back at me, grey hair spiralling off his forehead. My mother is dead now, but I try to find, here, some remnant of what she loved.”

p 65
“I watched Hans’s chest moving under his shirt, the soft sheen of his skin. I forced my gaze away to his feet but my eyes travelled back up over his legs, long and splayed, and I wondered how he was made.”

All That I Am won the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, along with many other accolades. I concur … this one is a worthy addition to your “to read” list.

From the

“Anna Funder, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and author of “Stasiland”, offers a thrilling tale and powerful love story that tells the heroic and tragic true story of the German resistance in World War II in “All That I Am”. When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth’s husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breath-taking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe-haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart…”



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