A modest and beautifully crafted finish to Kerr’s trilogy
The final part of Judith Kerr’s Out Of The Hitler Time trilogy, A Small Person Far Away, is as splendid and fascinating a piece of autobiography-turned-into-fiction writing as the previous two, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Essential Modern Classics) and Bombs on Aunt Dainty
Judith Kerr (fictionalised as Anna in the book) is now in her late 20s, happily married to her scriptwriter husband Nigel Kneale, (fictionalised as Richard) and beginning to make her own journey as a writer.
The structure of this third book is particularly satisfying, as various motifs and minor occurrences serve as little memory portals back to the past ( a beautiful rug, finding the receipt for the rug in her coat pocket during a particularly stressful episode, so there is a hook back to the memory, and the simultaneous experience of then and now) This is all done in a very natural, unforced, organic way. She is a remarkably good writer, there is real psychological depth going on, great observation, a really strong sense of narrative – and the ability to offer startling images in an arresting way, that feels very authentic.
As in the previous books, the major events all happened, but she has crafted and tightened and carefully chosen, I guess, central moments, and pared out and removed padding. I have a sense that her artist’s eye for composition has been put to excellent use in her writing. It’s not that she gets involved in a lot of visual description, it’s more a sense of composing the frame and placement of narrative.
Set mainly in Berlin again, where her mother is now living, the narrative superficially inhabits a very short time frame of a few days in 1956. Anna has returned to Berlin because her mother is seriously ill; this itself is quite complex. The few days coincide with both the Hungarian Uprising and the Suez Crisis – so, again, we are in a time when another war, from two directions, seemed like a distinct possibility. Inevitably for those who lived through one devastating war, so very recently, all those old terrors and memories must have been freshly re-awakened. So, over those days, Anna is constantly revisiting her past.
She suddenly remembered that when she was small, too, she had listened to distant trains in bed. Probably it’s the same line, she thought. Sometimes when she had found herself awake when everyone else was asleep, she had been comforted by the sound of a goods train rumbling interminably through the night. After Hitler, of course, goods trains had carried quite different cargoes to quite different destinations. She wondered if other German children had still been comforted by their sound in the might, not knowing what was inside them. She wondered what had happened to the trains afterwards, if they were still in use
Inevitably, this reminded me of Steve Reich’s Different Trains (You Tube has the Kronos Quartet version – The Smith Quartet version, linked here, is also very fine indeed)
I like the quiet and rather modest way she drops the reader into chasms and intense reflections, without ostentation
I can’t recommend this trilogy highly enough – and I’m amazed that I had never heard of Kerr until so very recently, when these marvellous books have been around for some time (- perhaps because primarily she became known as a writer and illustrator of books for young children.