Alternate Histories

Following my review of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank, in which it is imagined that Anne survived her time in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and returned to Amsterdam, I wanted to make a list of alternate history books.  The first book on the list, Stephen Fry’s Making History, is one of my absolute favourite novels, and the others are ones which I would like to get to sooner rather than later.  I have not purposely chosen alternate histories set around the Second World War, but these seem to be amongst the most prevalent, and all really appeal to me as a reader.


3174571. Making History by Stephen Fry
In Making History, Stephen Fry has bitten off a rather meaty chunk by tackling an at first deceptively simple premise: What if Hitler had never been born? An unquestionable improvement, one would reason–and so an earnest history grad student and an aging German physicist idealistically undertake to bring this about by preventing Adolf’s conception. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours–but in most ways even worse. Fry’s experiment in history makes for his most ambitious novel yet, and his most affecting. His first book to be set mostly in America, it is a thriller with a funny streak, a futuristic fantasy based on one of mankind’s darkest realities. It is, in every sense, a story of our times.’


2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 216363
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war — and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.  This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.


184905333. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.  But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.  Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.’


4. Dominion by C.J. Sansom 15770927
1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers, and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours too about what is happening in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing.  In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side. And in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle forever. Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given by them the mission to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country. Before long he, together with a disparate group of Resistance activists, will find themselves fugitives in the midst of London’s Great Smog; as David’s wife Sarah finds herself drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined. And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant, implacable hunter of men…’


703._sy475_5. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
In an astonishing feat of narrative invention, our most ambitious novelist imagines an alternate version of American history. In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.  For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threatens to destroy his small, safe corner of America – and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.’


6. The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville 41017647._sy475_
It’s 1941. In the chaos of wartime Marseille, American engineer – and occult disciple – Jack Parsons stumbles onto a clandestine anti-Nazi group, including surrealist theorist André Breton. In the strange games of the dissident diplomats, exiled revolutionaries, and avant-garde artists, Parsons finds and channels hope. But what he unwittingly unleashes is the power of dreams and nightmares, changing the war and the world forever.  It’s 1950. A lone surrealist fighter, Thibaut, walks a new, hallucinogenic Paris, where Nazis and the Resistance are trapped in unending conflict, and the streets are stalked by living images and texts – and by the forces of hell. To escape the city, he must join forces with Sam, an American photographer intent on recording the ruins, and make common cause with a powerful, enigmatic figure of chance and rebellion: the exquisite corpse.  But Sam is being hunted. And new secrets will emerge that will test all their loyalties – to each other, to Paris old and new, and to reality itself.’


6506307._sy475_7. Blackout by Connie Willis
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.


8. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis 11371
The only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith, It Can’t Happen Here is a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press. Now finally back in print, It Can’t Happen Here remains uniquely important, a shockingly prescient novel that’s as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.


Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite alternate history books?


‘Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank’ by David Gillham ****

Back in February 2017, I had the honour of visiting the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam.  I have been aware of Anne’s story ever since I can remember; indeed, one of my first reading memories is of encountering her biography in a written-for-children format at school, and sobbing.  Since I was old enough to read her diary in its entirety, I have done so every couple of years without fail, and am always moved to tears.

I was a little wary of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank when I first spotted it in the library.  It tells an alternative story, of Anne Frank surviving the persecution she faced during the Holocaust in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and moving back to Amsterdam to live with her father, Otto.  However, I do find ‘what if?’ stories rather fascinating; Stephen Fry’s Making History is a prime example of just how good this sub-genre can be.  I decided, therefore, to pick up the paperback edition of Annelies. 45161414._sy475_-1

The opening section of Annelies creates an imagined narrative which relies heavily upon her own diaries.  Events that I have read of so many times in Anne’s own beautiful writing are rendered in a different voice here.  The preface of each chapter contains a quote from Anne’s diary, which I felt was a nice touch.

The first short chapter of the novel really caught my attention, and immediately sets up the alternate twist of history.  Here, Gillham writes: ‘And in that fractured moment, the world that would have been takes a different path: a flicker of the girl she once was makes a last demand for life.  A breath, a flinch of existence…  She coughs viciously, but somethingin her has found a pulse.  Some vital substance.’  We move from here to Anne’s childhood, at a point in time before the Franks had to move into the annexe above Otto’s workplace, but when the situation is becoming grave.  Gillham notes: ‘It’s obvious that things are not good for the Jews since the Hun occupied the city.  It’s even obvious to a child that things are happening.  Anne is not as oblivious as everyone believes.  But why in the world should they dwell on it so?’

On her return to Amsterdam, nothing is as she left it.  Anne feels like a completely different person, whose childhood has been left far behind her.  She struggles to come to terms with the death of her mother, Edith, and her elder sister, Margot, as well as what happened to her in Bergen-Belsen.  Her only way to survive, and to recover, is to ‘transform her story of trauma into a story of redemption and hope.’

Gillham continually asserts the solace which Anne felt within the pages of her diary, each entry of which she affectionally addressed to ‘Kitty’.  He writes: ‘In her diary Anne turns herself inside out…  Splashing ink on the paper, sometimes boisterously, sometimes angrily, often critically, perhaps even artfully.  She has learned to depend on words to see herself more clearly.  Her demands, her frustrations and furies, her unobtainable ideals, and her relentless desires, all a reflection of the lonely self she confesses only to the page, because if people aren’t patient, paper is.’

anne_frank_promo_00000219900048The historical detail here has clearly been well researched, and helps to situate Anne, particularly after her character returns to Amsterdam.  Gillham shows how troubled anyone in her situation would be, and the myriad reasons as to why she is unable to settle back into her old life as though nothing has happened.  The absence of her family is obvious at every point, and Gillham places emphasis on the rather tumultuous relationship which existed between Anne and her mother.  The dynamics between each of the protagonists here have been so well drawn.  Anne’s grief, when she makes the gruelling journey from the concentration camp to her old home, is almost palpable: ‘She no longer knows what home is now.  Her family is dead.  Without them how can such a thing as home exist?’

I have already mentioned that I had reservations about reading Gillham’s book, but I really should not have worried.  He handles Anne’s story – both the real and the imagined aspects of it – with heart and compassion.  Gillham’s version of her is recognisable; the plucky, confident Anne, which is so often shown in her diary, and in the accounts of those who knew her, is visible and apparent.  Gillham writes, for instance: ‘Instead she has a swift desire to misbehave.  She tastes it like spice on the back of her tongue.’

Gillham also shows the other side of Anne, the lonely, longing girl, which is sometimes revealed in her diaries.  In one of the early chapters, the author explains: ‘This is the Anne she keeps a secret from others.  The panicked Anne.  The helpless Anne on the edge of a lonely void.  It would not do for such an Anne to show up in the world.’  The Anne of Gillham’s creation is three-dimensional, sometimes so much so that the loss of her potential – and that of millions more murdered in the Holocaust – feels overwhelming.

The omniscient perspective of Annelies, which follows our protagonist at every turn, was effective, and I felt that every aspect of the story was well handled.  It is often chilling – for instance, when Gillham asserts ‘Anne knows that she has no identity beyond the number imprinted on her arm.’  Annelies is both sensitive and immensely readable.  It feels incredibly thorough, and there are so many touching moments woven throughout.  In his author’s note, Gillham writes that he his ‘priority has been to honor Anne’s story with honesty and accuracy’, and indeed, this feels like exactly what he has achieved.