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Lit Review: ‘We Could Not See the Stars’ by Elizabeth Wong

by Fong Min Hun

As booksellers, Elaine and I constantly work through an endless pile of books to determine their suitability for our shelves. We usually divvy up the books between us and avoid reading the same book to speed up the assessment process (which makes for interesting book conversation, because rather than discussing something we had read together, we are almost always telling each other about the book that we just read). It’s not often that we would say to the other person, ‘Hey, you need to read this book’ but she said just that after finishing Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars several months ago. I mumbled, ‘Okay, I’ll get around to it,’ and left it at that. But several weeks ago, she’d thrown the book at me, metaphorically speaking, and said ‘Read It!’, because the author was going to be making an appearance at our shop and I Needed To Read The Book. And so I did. 

At first blush, We Could Not See the Stars is a work of speculative fiction set in an alternate Malaysia populated by emigrant Chinese in which Manglish is spoken exclusively. The story begins in Kampung Seng, a small fishing village on the west coast of the Peninsula, where our protagonist, Han, lives the quiet, unassuming life of a rural fisherman. He schleps for his rich uncle — Tauke Lim — who owns the largest fishing operation in the kampung and spends his days aimlessly rooting around, despite his young age. What sets Han apart from all others, however, is his spotty provenance: his mother, Swee, had suddenly appeared at Kampung Seng with him in tow years ago armed with a mysterious looking spade, and never disclosed any information in regards to her origins or her family. That she would then deliberately run into the sea to her death several years later, leaving no clue as to her origins save for the odd-looking spade, would further deepen the mystery of the pair. 

Han, who has little recollection of his mother and even less of their past, is phlegmatic about this void in his life even though he is plagued by dreams and fragments of memories embedded in his being. All this changes when his mother’s spade is stolen from his house — “She’s dead and I have nothing left of her!” — spurring Han to go after the thief, setting him off on a journey that will take closer than ever to the discovery of the truth of his heritage. His odyssey will see him leave his tiny kampung for the first time, taking him to the Capital in the Peninsula, then across the deadly Desert of the Birds, and finally across the sea into the Hei-San archipelago where the secret of his origins lies within the forest of Naga Tua. 

First, a word about the language. It is clear from the off that Elizabeth Wong is adamantly writing a book about Malaysia, for Malaysians. However, there is also no doubt that she is writing about a specific setting of Malaysia and for a specific segment of Malaysians:

In their evenings, they lingered in the parking lot of the former Golden Star cinema. The last rays of sunlight flared across their motorcycles as they smoked their cigarettes, and the dust clouds from the main road billowed around them. Sometimes they would race from Golden Star to Liu’s prawn farms on the other side of the village, and back again… If they were at Boon Chee, they would watch football matches that were showing on the twenty-year-old Sony TV that hung over the entrance, next to Laughing Buddha looking at them. ‘Eh, boss, boss, more beer, peanuts also, why like that so slow?’ Chong Meng would holler, and the workers would scurry. 

Those of us of a certain vintage and variety would certainly recall such locales: Chinese townships anchored by the local cinema — the Sentosa, Paramount and Ruby cinemas come to mind — supported by an enclave of petty merchants selling sundry items and fireworks under newspapers during Chinese New Year. The local patois would very much be dictated by the majority dialect group in the area, and if any English was spoken in these areas, it would be in the Manglish so deftly illustrated in the line of dialogue above. Even the cry of the rooster, which Wong phonetically dishes out as Goukokoko, is typically Manglish; nowhere else would you find a rooster’s cry written out in this way, in the same way that so many thousands of Chinese Malaysian mums have sounded the cry of the rooster to their children. 

Indeed, all of Wong’s characters speak in Manglish in the novel. Nevertheless, it is a particularly Chinese Malaysian variety of Manglish that dominates in the book which leaves the question of, ‘What about the other races?’ unanswered. The fact of the matter is, the other races don’t feature in the book at all; or if they do, their distinguishing marks are subsumed under generalities and abstractions. (White men do make an appearance in the book, although they are, perhaps slightly pejoratively, described as the White Ghosts, a literal translation of the Cantonese term for Caucasians, gwai lo [鬼佬]. Before anyone loses their composure over this, it’s a very minor role and their presence more a function of world-building demarcating boundaries than anything else).  

But there is a reason for the Chinese-Malaysian-centricity of the book. At its core, We Could Not See the Stars is a fable about the Chinese diaspora, and about the descendants of those who left the motherland for Nanyang in search of riches in these relatively virgin lands. It is about those of us who have been separated from our ancestral lands for generations, who have lost all bonds of familiarity with these lands, and yet hold on to a thin thread that ties us to a past and impels us to seek out our identity by following that thread of history. This theme is repeated in several passages through the novel:

We are all part of this world, Ah-ma explained, connected in this great shining net of humanity, and to belong in it fully, one needs a past, a history. 

For we are stardust — we are merely a minuscule physical manifestation of larger processes, planet forming from bits of rock and dust, plants generating oxygen, comets and asteroids delivering water, volcanoes spewing aleum, creating homes for humans to find and populate; we are one sentence in a larger story, one whose ending has not been written yet. To lose this history is death.

We Could Not See the Stars is not a perfect novel. I have some reservations about the pacing and the structure of the book, and there is a sense that the balance between world-building and plotting is slightly off-kilter. Nevertheless, the book continues to resonate deeply within me because the problem of historicity and identity is one that I can strongly identify with. Going back to the metaphor of the thread of history which ties us to our past, we can also see that the thread thins and weakens with each successive generation. There will be a point of inflection in which the thread snaps altogether, and decisions will have to be made: about when and where we are to re-anchor ourselves, and to decide our part in the larger narrative. We will need to do this, because, as Wong tells us, to lose this history is death. 

Join us for an author session with Elizabeth Wong in Lit Books on 6 Aug! Purchase tickets here.

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Lit Recap: Author event with Hanna Alkaf

Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s third novel, Queen of the Tiles, is set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Hence it was only fitting that the author session held at Lit Books on 2 July, 2022 would feature life-size Scrabble boards where attendees could try their hand at fielding high-scoring words. The event was organised by the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast headed by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, who are no strangers to those who have been following us for a while. This dynamic duo has collaborated with us on numerous literary events over the years.

The morning of Hanna’s event dawned bright and beautiful, and the audience who came were eager to get up close and personal with one of their favourite authors. Hanna spoke at length with Honey and Diana about Queen of the Tiles, a mystery novel set in the world of competitive Scrabble that explores teenage friendship, grief and mental health. The full podcast will be out soon, but in the meantime, here are some snippets from the hour-long interview.

On how she came to write Queen of the Tiles:
I grew up in a time when my brother was playing competitive Scrabble. There used to be weekly tournaments at the Park Royal Hotel downtown, and I used to teman my mother to send my brother and pick him up. I sort of absorbed the atmosphere and would watch my brother walking around with these massive printed out lists of words that he bound with duct tape on one side — he would study them.

While I was thinking about what my next book would be after The Weight of Our Sky [Hanna’s debut novel], the idea came to me to write about a Scrabble tournament because I’d never seen books that really centred a Scrabble tournament before. And then I thought, well, what if I added murder…

On how she crafted Najwa, the novel’s main character:
Najwa was tough in a lot of different ways to write because first of all, Najwa is dealing with such immense grief. In order to write those kinds of emotions, I find that I have to mine them within myself and really explore my own feelings in order to bring that to the page, and that’s a tough thing to do. You have to scrape away the layers of protection you put around yourself and really sit with your own ideas of grief and loss.

The other level is just that Najwa is much smarter than me so it’s very hard to get into her head and write the way that she thinks, which is to float from word to word, definition to definition, and tie it altogether. I wanted to write her that way and I was also very mad at myself for writing her that way because it made my life much more difficult. The search for the perfect word at the perfect time that would tie to the next word and the next word, that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It didn’t come naturally to me. It involved a lot of reading of the Scrabble dictionary.

On being unapologetic about injecting Malaysian elements into her stories:
There are things about the Malaysian experience of growing up that stick and that I really want to see written about normally in the narrative, the same way that we accepted tea parties with tea and crumpets, nurseries and governesses — we all read this as kids and we just accepted that they were the narrative of our childhood even though it didn’t look anything like our childhoods. And that’s what I wanted for us. I wanted to read it and be like this is just a thing. It’s one of those things that I write without trying to make it a big deal. It’s not a focal point; it’s not a thing I want outsiders to look at and exoticize. I just want it to feel familiar to you.

When we talk about who I’m writing for, I’m writing for Malaysians. I may be published in the US, but I’m writing for Malaysians. I want them to feel like they are home to you. I write them thinking about how I was at that age, how I grew up, how my kids are growing up, what’s normal for us, and what’s normal for them.

On plotting an absorbing and compelling mystery:
Queen of the Tiles is in many ways my most technically difficult book because plotting a mystery is very difficult. Writing any sort of mystery is very difficult and very technical and it involves a lot of meticulous planning and follow-up, going back and forth and making you’re foreshadowing right and adding the correct red herrings and making sure that you’ve led people astray enough times and all sorts of stuff like that.

On her favourite word:
One of my favourite words is obsequious. I just like the way that that falls off the tongue. It sounds like exactly what it is — a slimy person. There’s something about the way you say it that’s very satisfying.

Watch out for the full interview with Hanna Alkaf soon on the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, which you can subscribe to on Spotify and Apple podcast.

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Lit Review: ‘Four Treasures of the Sky’ by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

by Cass Chia

When I started reading Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, seated behind the counter at work, I wasn’t expecting to fall so deeply in love. A stirring debut of historical and literary fiction, Four Treasures explores a young girl’s coming of age set against the backdrop of historical and personal tragedy.

Born in 19th-century China to a loving family, 13-year-old Daiyu has spent her life in the shadow of her namesake Lin Daiyu — a doomed maiden from Chinese folklore. When Daiyu loses her parents under ominous circumstances, she can’t help but feel that her name is to blame. Her grandmother sends Daiyu off to Zhifu, a seaport town, disguised as a boy named Feng, where she meets Master Wang, the owner of a calligraphy school. With his guidance, Daiyu unlocks a love for calligraphy that breathes new life into her distressing world.

But her fate sours once again when she is abducted, smuggled across the ocean and sold to a brothel. In America, Daiyu becomes Peony. Every day is a fight for survival with only Master Wang’s teachings for comfort. When an opportunity to return to China arises, Daiyu manages to escape the brothel only to face cruel betrayal. She ends up in Pierce, Idaho, where she is taken in by two Chinese shopkeepers, Nam and Lum, and a violinist named Nelson — all of whom know her as Jacob Li. As anti-Chinese sentiment spreads across the country, Daiyu’s newfound stability is threatened, and she faces a difficult choice: should she stay or go?

Four Treasures of the Sky is a powerful story about searching for identity despite extreme circumstances. As I sat to write this review, I was stumped on what to even call the narrator. Daiyu, Feng, Peony, Jacob Li. Which name is the most truthful to the character? Which name is the least? Is she all of them at once, or something else entirely? (The answer to why I landed on ‘Daiyu’ lies in the ending, so no spoilers!) To most of us, finding who we are is an organic process; to Daiyu, that timeline is a luxury. Seeing Daiyu deal with impossible situations time and time again with the measliest of resources is a gruelling experience. But the high stakes are what make her hero’s journey so compelling. When Daiyu finally succeeds and learns to forge her own identity, I was moved, haunted and ultimately satisfied.

In terms of craft, the book is elegant in its economy. The writing is buoyant, the pacing quick, and the world brilliantly immersive. What makes Four Treasures special, however, is how it bridges lyrical prose and loaded subject matter, especially given that part of the book was inspired by real-world events following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Zhang deftly delivers emotional punches one after another, and you barely have time to appreciate the setup before feeling the blow. Here’s a little taste of what I mean:

“[In America], I am special. The white people make me that way. Why else would they step aside when I walk by, or avoid my eyes, or whisper things that I cannot hear under their breath? My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” (207-208)

Thus, Zhang proclaims the beauty in pain, and how that beauty is anchored in art, history and community.

This book has earned its place as one of my favorite books, period. If you’re in the market for a heartbreaker, Four Treasures of the Sky is for you. Prepare to be sucked in and sucked dry.

Get a copy of the book here.

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Lit Review: ‘Our Castle by the Sea’ by Lucy Strange

Who: After stints as an actor, singer and storyteller, Lucy Strange became a secondary school teacher and writer of middle-grade historical fiction. Her first book, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, received high praise and her second, Our Castle by the Sea, is the subject of this review.

What: It’s 1939, and England is on the cusp of World War II. Twelve-year-old Petra (Pet) and her family — older sister Magda (Mags), her pa and mother (Mutti) — are lighthouse keepers in the coastal village of Stonegate. Unlike her spirited sister, Pet isn’t particularly brave and is given to believing in myths and legends.

As war encroaches upon their small community, Pet’s family gets caught up in a plot that threatens to tear them apart. Mutti, a German immigrant, is packed off to an internment camp for “enemy aliens” as a matter of national security. Mags becomes increasingly secretive and evasive, and her pa is distracted and distant. It is up to Pet to muster every ounce of courage to uncover the truth and do what she can to set things right.

Why: There is much to unpack in this beautifully written, atmospheric novel — it blends mystery, intrigue and family dynamics with a protagonist, Pet, who starts out quiet and timid but because of the extraordinary circumstances she gets thrown into, becomes a lass of steely resolve by the novel’s end.

The story begins with the telling of a local legend of four sisters, who traded their souls for the safe return of their father lost at the treacherous sandbank, the Wyrm. They were turned into stone when their wish was fulfilled. This myth, the self-sacrifice and bravery of the girls, is embedded in Pet’s psyche and colours her perception and interpretation of events in the book. I love how Strange weaves myth into the fabric of the story because history and identity as a people and culture is as much about real events as it is about the myths and legends passed down through the ages.

The book affords wonderfully nuanced explorations on the themes of love, loyalty and sacrifice, and the way fear and racism can drive a person to do crazy things; World War II is the perfect foil for this. Through the actions of her parents, Pet observes the price of true sacrifice. When acts of sabotage start happening in the village, Pet learns the painful lesson that sometimes, people are not who they may seem, and the enemy within is often more insidious than the enemy without.

The author is masterful at evoking the time and place, and in bringing out the gamut of emotions portrayed in the book through her rich, sensitive prose. Meanwhile, Pet as a character is endearing and wise beyond her years. The build-up of the mystery and suspense makes it a delicious page-turner.

Quotable quote: “If you were torn between loyalty to your country and love for your family, what would you choose?”

Verdict: An evocative, richly rendered historical fiction full of depth of characters and plot (9/10)

Reading level: Ages 10 and up

Availability: Paperback, RM41.90

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Lit Review: ‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

by Fong Min Hun

Who: Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, One True Loves, Maybe in Another Life, After I Do, and Forever, Interrupted. Her novels have been Indie Next Picks, chosen by Book of the Month, and featured in People, US Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Good Morning America, and more. Her newest novel, Daisy Jones and The Six, is a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Los Angeles.

What: Daisy Jones and the Six is a fictional written oral history of a similarly fictional rock band inspired by the story of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. In Reid’s novel, Daisy Jones and the Six hit the heights of rock ‘n’ roll stardom when they release their album, Aurora, which becomes an instant rock classic. All this unfolds in the 1970s where sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll went hand-in-hand with one another, and where rock stars were creatures larger than life.

The protagonists of the novel are the book’s eponymous Daisy Jones and the lead singer of The Six, Billy Dunne. Both incredibly talented musicians in their own right, they form an instant distaste for one another when their production company suggests a collaborative effort. So not only have they been assigned the unhappy task of working with each other, but they also have to wrestle with ghosts from their past which are always looming just off-camera.

Other members of the band and associated individuals are also brought into the narrative to flesh out flesh out the details, and to bring to bear their own recollections of the event — not all of which mesh to form a coherent and common narrative. But amidst all the unreliable narrations, a picture of the roller-coaster life of a 1970s rock star emerges, and it is a fun ride.

Why: Daisy Jones and The Six combines clichés within clichés: warring virtuoso front-(wo)men of a stellar band; eccentric bandmates who swing between the extremes of love and hate for the band and all it stands for; copious amount of drugs on The Sunset Strip and wherever else the band might be touring; etc. It’s a trope that’s well-used in the movie business, but not so much in novels, and that’s part of what makes it a compelling read. It is a stylish novel that captures the hedonism of the 1970s in all its glorious technicolour, and a compulsive page-turner.

Reid has a good ear for the way interviewees speak while on record, and the transition from one voice to the next is seamless. It’s clear that each character has a fully-formed personality: the music wonk Billy Dunne, the devil-may-care but nevertheless fragile Daisy Jones, the brother-in-the-shadows Graham Dunne. But unlike a more traditionally structured novel, we obtain no greater insight into what they are really thinking aside from what they care to confess to the interviewer. Yet — and this may be a comment on the reviewer as much as it is on the writing — we intuitively know with great familiarity these characters from the book.

The descriptions of the music are also tantalising and makes one wish this were a real album. Iin an interview, Reid equates one of the songs in the book Regret Me with Fleetwood Mac’s Silver Springs, and it makes one wish that someone would perhaps construct a soundtrack for the book.

Perhaps the least inspired and most insipid aspect of the book is the main plotline, which is ultimately a love story. Love is something that has always featured in Reid’s previous novels and it comes as no surprise that it features heavily in the moment of denouement. You can see it a mile coming, but, at the same time, you would be hard-pressed to find an alternative ending for the book. Yes, it is a cliché, but it is all the more enjoyable for it.

Verdict: A really fun and compulsive read. Readers with the slightest interest in 70s rock would find it compelling and un-put-downable. (8/10)

Availability: Hardback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Ballantine Books for a review copy of the book.

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Spotlight on Middle Eastern authors

The Unesco World Book and Copyright Day falls on April 23 annually, and each year, a city is named World Book Capital. For 2019, that honour falls on Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates; as such, this month’s picks are dedicated to featuring books written by Middle Eastern authors. Often set in the interstices of culture, tradition and modernity, these stories reflect the pervasive tension that has beset the modern Middle East and its reverberations through the lives of individuals. Yet, these are beautiful stories with sheer underlying humanity that will resonate with every reader.

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli (RM49.90)
Seeing first-hand the terrible suffering endured by ordinary people in the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history was the catalyst for Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli to write this profound novel. The story begins with Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose story is told set against the last 50 years of the country’s history, of dictatorship, invasion and occupation. Essential to understanding Ibrahim’s story are those of his two best buds, Tariq “the Befuddled”, a schoolteacher, and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, who becomes a soldier and ends up a prisoner of war. Ibrahim, after he was made lame during the invasion of Kuwait, finds a job in the titular garden, an idyllic location by all appearances but which belies the horrors lurking within. This gripping story of life in a war zone is a vivid investigation of love, death, injustice and the importance of friendship.

Seeing first-hand the terrible suffering endured by ordinary people in the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history was the catalyst for Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli to write this profound novel. The story begins with Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose story is told set against the last 50 years of the country’s history, of dictatorship, invasion and occupation. Essential to understanding Ibrahim’s story are those of his two best buds, Tariq “the Befuddled”, a schoolteacher, and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, who becomes a soldier and ends up a prisoner of war. Ibrahim, after he was made lame during the invasion of Kuwait, finds a job in the titular garden, an idyllic location by all appearances but which belies the horrors lurking within. This gripping story of life in a war zone is a vivid investigation of love, death, injustice and the importance of friendship.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (RM79.90)
In this intimate memoir, Iranian author and English professor Azar Nafisi recounts the two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran when she met with seven of her most dedicated female students to read and discuss forbidden Western classics by authors including Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and of course, Vladimir Nabokov. This took place from 1995 to 1997 at a time of increased radicalism, when Islamic morality squads would stage arbitrary raids in Tehran, artistic expression was stifled with censorship, and fundamentalists were taking hold of universities. The women who gathered every Thursday morning came from diverse backgrounds — some conservative, others secular — but bonded over their shared love for literature. Literary criticism is intertwined with personal stories of resilience in the face of tyranny, and the result is a book that is illuminating in more ways than one.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (RM75.50)
Egyptian writer and translator Ahdaf Soueif examines the repercussions of the British occupation of Egypt and the fierce political battles of the Egyptian Nationalists in an evocative, epic romantic tale between an English aristocrat, Lady Anna Winterbourne, and Sharif al-Baroudi, an Egyptian nationalist, in 1900. A century later, Anna’s great-granddaughter Isabel Packman finds her notebooks, journals and letters in a trunk and travels to Egypt to piece together Anna’s life. Accompanying her on this journey is Omar Ghamrawi, the man she loves and who happens to be Sharif’s grandnephew. There she meets Omar’s sister Amal, and they become fast friends. Told through the Amal’s voice, Anna and Sharif’s story is echoed by the love affair between Isabel and Omar, set against the continuing political turmoil of the Middle East. This absorbing, eloquent novel provides a lesson in cultural and political history, but also the intricacies of love.

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (RM75.50)
Turkish novelist, academic and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has written a beguiling mystery that explores father-son relationships and questions of patricide in a nod to Oedipus Rex. After Cem’s father abandons the family, the 16-year-old apprentices himself to a master well digger, Mahmut. Cem becomes attached to the elderly man and comes to regard him as a surrogate father. Then one day he meets a stunning red-haired woman, Gülcihan, who is as taken with him as he is by her. A subsequent act by the well puts an end to things, Cem’s relationship with Mahmut also comes to a tragic end. These events change Cem’s life forever and haunt him for the next 30 years. This is an extraordinary novel from one of the great storytellers of our time.

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (RM43.90)
Turkish author Elif Shafak’s 10th novel, Three Daughters of Eve, wrestles with questions of identity, faith and feminism through the story of Peri, a Turkish housewife and mother. A violent encounter with a vagrant while Peri was on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul one evening causes an old polaroid to fall out of her purse, triggering unpleasant memories of the past that she would much rather forget. The memories are of her time at Oxford University. She and her two best friends, the worldly Shirin and the devout Mona, engaged in lively discourses on Islam and feminism. Peri also took a life-changing course on God with Shirin’s mentor, the charismatic but controversial divinity professor, Azur. Their group is torn apart by a scandal, and its effects are still felt in present day. Shafak deftly weaves a tale with philosophical overtones to give the reader much to mull over long after the novel ends.

This article appears in the April 2019 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.

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Lit Review: ‘Annelies’ by David R. Gillham

by Fong Min Hun

Who: David R. Gillham is the author of the NYT bestselling City of Women. He studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California before transitioning into fiction. After moving to New York City, Gillham spent more than a decade in the book business, and he now lives with his family in Western Massachusetts. Annelies is his latest novel based on the life of famous diarist Anne Frank.

What: What if Annelies Marie Frank, better known as Anne Frank, survived the Nazi death camps to become one of the few to return to a broken post-war Europe? Gillham’s novel explores this possibility of the return of a broken and brutalised Anne to a home in shambles where her father, Pim, is the only surviving member of the Frank family. But whereas Pim is intent on picking up from where the family left off, Anne is tormented by the horrors of the war, by the betrayal of her family at the hands of Nazi conspirators and her own deeply rooted survivor’s guilt. To top it off, the diary which had become her sole comfort and inspiration goes missing after the family’s arrest. She is desperate to flee her past, but options are few for Holocaust survivors in post-war Europe.

In Gillham’s retelling, the Anne Frank story begins in the weeks leading up to their decision to go into hiding. Anne is a vivacious and somewhat difficult 13-year old (read: typical teenager) unlike her more sober-minded and responsible older sister. Despite having fled their home in Germany and now living in Nazi-occupied Holland, the Frank family did okay for themselves with Pim having set up a fairly lucrative pectin business and the girls seemingly adjusting well to their new Dutch identities. But anti-semitism was on the rise and the Frank family opted to go into hiding, and were subsequently betrayed to the Gestapo.

Why: Few Holocaust figures have captured the imagination quite the same way as Anne Frank, whose diary provides a vivid and poignant look into life under occupied Holland. Living in a secret annex behind her father’s offices, Anne’s diary was a living record of fugitives attempting to live as normal a life as possible despite the daily threat of betrayal or being discovered by the Nazi secret police. Anne dreamed of being a writer and she filled her diaries with stories and descriptions and ruminations of life within her secret space. The real Anne would not survive the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and would succumb to disease just weeks before the camp’s liberation by the British forces.

In Gillham’s Annelies, Anne survives — just barely — Bergen-Belsen, but she returns a changed woman. Unlike Pim whose faith in god and humanity survives the death camps, Anne, who bore witness to her mother and sister’s deaths, has now become a jaded, cynical and empty woman. Moreover, her diary which was both the literal and figurative representation of her ambition, has gone missing. Wracked by guilt, uncontrollable anger and grief, Anne can find no succour in her new life in Holland and is desperate to start somewhere else. Her desire for a new beginning puts her at odds with her once beloved Pim, who begins to find that post-war Europe has yet to come to terms with its own anti-semitic past.

The book is wonderfully descriptive and the characters well fleshed out. The development in Anne’s character is believable and the horrors of the Nazi camps — as well as life after — rigorously researched. And yet, there is a sense that Anne is somewhat diminished in the book. This may be an unpopular opinion but an essential part of the real Anne is the tragedy of her life cut short, leaving behind nothing but her living record of the days leading up to her arrest. Don’t get me wrong — there is much to admire in surviving the Holocaust but therein is the problem; Anne’s story post-war becomes a survivor’s story but it could have been any survivor, and not one unique to Anne. Ultimately, I suspect the intrigue of Anne Frank is due as much to the diary she leaves behind as well as the fact that it is the only thing she leaves behind.

Verdict: A well-researched and well-written historical fiction, and fans of Anne Frank will find the hypothetical ‘What If?’ compelling.  (7/10)

Availability: Trade Paperback, RM84.90

Special thanks to Viking Books for a review copy of the book.