All That I Am

What it feels like to be brave.

In 2004, Anna Funder won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction with Stasiland, a book that skilfully placed the testimonies of a group of Stasi officers, collaborators and their victims in the dual frame of historical context and a first-person account of its author's research and reflections. Funder had originally planned to turn the story into a novel, but later explained that "when the material is so extreme, and when people are trying to sweep it under the carpet, it would have been a morally inappropriate choice to fictionalise it".

All That I Am is her second book, and her first novel, although it, too, is "reconstructed" from "fossil fragments" of real lives, this time those of a group of German Jewish socialists in flight from Hitler. There are two narrators. One is Ernst Toller, the most frequently performed dramatist of the Weimar era, who committed suicide in New York in 1939, inspiring an elegy by Auden. The other is the book's dedicatee, Ruth Blatt (née Koplowitz), who told her story to Funder before she died at the age of 94 in 2001. A third important source was Charmian Brinson's academic work on German political exiles. Funder changes details in order to shrink her cast list and simplify their relationships.

In her story, a woman called Ruth Becker is married to (the real-life) Hans Wesemann and is a cousin (rather than a friend) of the heroine of the novel, the real Dora Fabian. Chapters alternate between the point of view of Toller, dictating amendments to his autobiography shortly before his death, and that of Ruth, who slides into memory as she slides into death at her home in Bondi Beach. (As in Stasiland, Funder presents Australia, "a glorious country, which aspires to no kind of glory", as a welcome antidote to European horror.)

Ruth takes the position occupied by Funder in her first book - a photographer by vocation, she is largely there to do "the looking". One of her dying thoughts is that "imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any". But, needless to say, in fiction as in photography, before there can be imagination there must be selection: the act of deciding who deserves compassion. Funder, and therefore Ruth and Toller, believe it is Dora who should be made to "live" again.

Sincere, straightforward and "practical", governed by "her secular faith: a sense that something could always be done", Dora is the most attractive fictional heroine in a long time. Funder places her at the heart of anti-fascist acti­vities in England - risking her life to smuggle Toller's papers out of Germany, negotiating with the Home Office to get visas for witnesses to testify at the inquiry into the Reichstag fire, forcing the British press to take heed of German rearmament, taking lovers and (when she can't sleep) Veronal. Funder has said that one of the reasons she wrote this novel was to know "what it feels like to be brave".

The effect of elevating Dora is to diminish the role played by other figures in the German "emigrandezza" and their English supporters, such as the Labour politicians Fenner Brockway and Dudley Aman, Lord Marley. Similarly, Toller, in this account, comes across as self-pitying and overly concerned with his work and public persona - but naturally his life is only selectively imagined. We are encouraged to believe that, before he hanged himself, Toller was thinking of Dora, whom he had last seen in 1935 ("four years with a hole in my heart and the wind soughing through it"), rather than Franco's victory in Spain, or even his brother and sister who had just been sent to concentration camps, as would be more likely.

All That I Am develops slowly, but always intriguingly, as we learn about the "generation back from the war", the collapse of the 1919 revolution, the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 and the refugees' hope against hope that "the Other Germany" will prevail. They come to London, a city that at first seems rather charming - a place of corned beef, tidy gardens "designed to look wild" and eccentric hostesses. Ultimately, however, they find themselves as much at risk as if they had stayed in Germany. With the British government "intent on dealing with Hitler as a reasonable fellow" and determined to clamp down on the activities of those who have fled from him, the Gestapo can plot at will. Bloomsbury is not so different from Stasiland: "everyone suspected everyone else".

Foreboding builds to a peak of suspense in the final third of the novel, culminating in a mystery about a locked room. I don't want to give the plot away, but Funder presents a persuasive theory of how, as Auden put it:

We are lived by powers we pretend
to understand:
. . . . it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness,
or even our hand.

Authentic or not, All That I Am is a gripping story of love, betrayal and the "aphrodisiac atmosphere of self-sacrifice".

All That I Am
Anna Funder
Viking, 384pp, £16.99

Kasia Boddy is a senior lecturer in English at University College London. She is the editor of "The New Penguin Book of American Short Stories, from Washington Irving to Lydia Davis" (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister