“Annelies: A Novel” by David R. Gilliam— What If?

Gillham, David R. “Annelies: A Novel”,  Viking, 2019. What If? Amos Lassen When I was a college student, the book “Games People Play” by Eric Berne was a very popular read and I believe that is because we all do play games. “What If?” is one of the games that never really gets boring since it challenges us to think about what could have been but wasn’t. David R. Gillham in a powerful and deeply humane new novel asks the question: What if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust? We go back to 1945 when Anne was sixteen and dealing with the loss of mother and sister in the concentration camps. Anne was able to survive the camps and she reunites with her father Pim in Amsterdam after the liberation. They quickly realize just how difficult it is to try to put their lives back together after such horrible experiences they both suffered. As we might expect, Anne is haunted by the memories of what she went through and she drifts. Pim on the other hand is determined to return to reality and this, for him, means normalcy. Anne is upset because her diary has been lost and her hopes and dreams of becoming a writer seem distant and unimportant now.  We have had so many Holocaust books and many of them  have been built on the brutality of memory and the attempt to build a new life after having experienced the worst suffering. Anne knows she must build a new life yet she must also deal with heartbreak, grief, and ultimately the freedom of forgiveness. “Annelies” is a story of trauma and redemption that honors Anne Frank’s legacy as not only “a symbol of hope and perseverance, but also a complex young woman of great ambition and heart.” I can hear critics shouting that Anne’s diary is a beautiful testimony to a terrible time and it should stand on its own and not be the subject of someone else’s book. After all, it has been read by generations and it has put a face on the most horrible event in the history of world. Purists will see no need or reason for this book. I must admit that I also felt that way and had to fight with myself to read this. Yes, Anne Frank became an icon based upon her diary that gave us a look not only at the Holocaust but also at her as a symbol of humanity at a time when there was none, or so it seemed. Because of her raised status, we forget sometimes that she was a person who had enjoyed a good and rich inner life before it was taken from her. Like so many others, Anne was a precocious young girl who also had great skill as a writer.  Writer Gillham lets us explore Anne Frank with breathtaking empathy and to try to understand what she might have become. The tragedy of Anne Frank is twofold in that we lost Anne, the person and Anne, the writer and lost potential. In thinking about “what if” as regards to one of the popular icons of our time, we are on shaky ground. We have no proof on what might have been, we only have our imaginations and our emotions to rely on here. David Gilham has the skill to give us his story with sensitivity and grace and what we ultimately get is not only a reminder of all that was lost during the war, but also an exploration of what it meant to live in the aftermath.
Gillham has a deep senseof understanding of human resilience and our capacity to survive and find our way to the light after being held for so long in darkness. Once again Anne Frank inspires us. Gillham not only explores what might have happened if Anne Frank had survived, he also gives us an intimate portrait of life as a Jewish survivor in Amsterdam after the war. This is not only a story of survival but also one of coming-of-age and family and redemption. I love this book and what makes that so interesting is that I had already sworn off reading any more books about the Holocaust for the next few years. Gillham grants Anne’s life back to her and as he does, he honors all those like Anne that we lost to the Nazis.

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