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.
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.’
The 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.