What if Anne Frank had survived the death camp?
Fiction: Annelies, David Gillham, Fig Tree, hardback, 397 pages, €18
One of very few consolations to be wrenched from the horrors of warfare is the creation of great art in response to it, and World War II has produced its fair share. Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum is maybe the greatest; but in terms of popularity, reach, emotional power and deeply abiding impact, all are surpassed by the adolescent scribblings of a Jewish girl locked inside an Amsterdam hideaway.
Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl has long been more than just a book. She and it have become testament, inspiration, icon, warning, liturgy, keening lament.
She began writing the celebrated diary in June 1942, her hometown under occupation by the hated 'Moffen'. After two years in hiding, the Frank family and their friends - eight in all - were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Anne died of typhus, a few months before her 16th birthday, in Bergen-Belsen. Only her father Otto came out alive.
It's an unbearably painful and poignant story, and this smart, perceptive, sometimes spiky teenager now personifies the most grievous crime in human history: the Holocaust.
It takes a certain kind of bravery, then, to write something like Annelies. To venture into the life, the inner thoughts, of Anne Frank - a secular saint of the modern world - takes courage.
David Gillham's novel turns on one of those momentous-but-simple questions so beloved of the publishing industry: what if? What if Anne Frank hadn't died in the death camp, alongside her older sister Margot, but had survived, come home to Amsterdam, been reunited with Otto (she calls him "Pim") and tried to adjust to some semblance of normality?
Annelies - that was her full name in reality - begins with a brief prologue, Anne lying in the mud of Bergen-Belsen, millimetres from death. Something calls her back to life, and we return, in the opening chapters, to events as they actually happened.
Anne receives a tartan-backed diary for her 13th birthday. An increased threat against Jews culminates in the Franks and associates going into hiding in an apartment annex, hidden behind a bookcase in the spice-factory managed by Pim. They're aided by a handful of incredibly courageous Dutch men and women, but existence is a tense, boring ordeal.
Finally, their secret is betrayed. A few short chapters capture the hellish conditions at Auschwitz, Anne and Margot's first camp.
The longest section of Annelies details what we might term "life after death". Anne moves back in with Pim, whose stoicism and determination to carry on enrage her. In fact, she's angry at everything: the Nazis, the Dutch, the world for letting this happen to them, her fellow Jews for not being as angry as her, and perhaps most of all, herself. Anne feels regret for mistreating her mother Edith in life. She has survivor's guilt - why should I live when so many didn't? And she's haunted by Margot, literally: her sister appears as a ghost throughout the story, a kind of disembodied Greek chorus - pestering, questioning, challenging and comforting Anne.
Through all this, the famous diary remains lost, or so Anne believes. The urge to be a writer hasn't been quashed, though; like most teenagers, she wants to express her true self, move to a glamorous city (New York) and basically change the world.
Annelies was reasonably engaging and made me want to keep going but it has, in my opinion, two quite significant problems.
The first is quality. It is, for large parts, well written. But the prose at times is overcooked, the descriptions samey, the dialogue sometimes stilted and didactic.
That long middle section, meanwhile, is much too long and repetitive to the point of tedium: Anne argues with her dad, Anne talks to Margot's ghost, Anne hates her new stepmother, Anne argues with her dad again, and again and again. She comes across as petulant, self-centred, even stupid; the brilliant ingénue talent of real-life has been flattened to an adolescent caricature.
The second problem is ethical. Is it permissible to use real horrors and tragedies for fictional purposes? I believe it isn't. Whatever about imagining this hypothetical "second chance" for Anne, the earlier parts reinterpreting the actual events of her life gave me a certain moral queasiness.
However, I admire the American author's obvious sincerity, and the amount of hard work and respectful care that he's put into the book. I'm just not sure that work should have been done in the first place.