After delving into the moral complexities faced by Berliners during World War II (City of Women, 2012), Gillham creates an alternate reality in which Anne Frank survives the Holocaust.
Gillham faces an impossible challenge in fictionalizing Anne Frank’s life before and during her time in hiding. Readers of her diary (and who isn’t one?) have already experienced a more vividly illuminating account of Anne’s arguments with her mother, her ambivalence toward her older sister, Margot, her adoration of her father, Pim, her complicated relationship with Annex-mate Peter and his family, even her ambition to be a writer; Gillham’s insertion of quotes from the diary only heightens the contrast between its artless eloquence and this clunky retelling. Once the Nazis discover the Franks, there is no diary to rely on for comparison. Instead the novel offers standard, if painfully accurate, concentration-camp tropes of suffering and sacrifice. The real Anne and Margot died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. Fictional Anne recovers in British-occupied Germany after liberation, then returns to Amsterdam to reunite with Pim in what should be a joyful moment but is undercut by “a bite of fury.” While what happens to Anne’s diary drives the plot, the emotional and ethical trauma suffered by survivors of wartime atrocity is the central theme. All the postwar characters, Jewish and gentile, struggle to overcome their past. Anger and survivor’s guilt storm within Anne. Margot’s ghost has become her constant companion. In one particularly powerful scene, Anne remains jealous over a sweater Margot received in Auschwitz instead of her but also recalls how Margot and their mother sacrificed transfer to a safer work camp because Anne was too sick to go with them. Anne’s hostility to Pim’s new wife and suspicion of everyone else in Amsterdam control her behavior until she faces the anger she directs toward herself.
Gillham takes a brave risk in turning an icon of goodness into a bitter, troubled survivor to show the emotional crises faced by Holocaust survivors, although flat-footed storytelling weakens the impact.