CHILDREN'S FICTION: Annexed By Sharon Dogar Andersen Press, 330pp. £12.99A CHILD'S FIRST introduction to a study of the Holocaust often comes through reading Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank's account of her two years in hiding at 263 Prinsengracht with her parents, her sister Margot, the dentist Pfeffer and the Van Pels family, Hermann, Auguste and 16-year-old Peter.
Anne was 13 when she entered the attic and 15 when she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died in March 1945. The only survivor from their Amsterdam hiding place was her father, Otto, who discovered the diary and brought it to the attention of the world.
The British writer Sharon Dogar has taken on a difficult task, creating a novel out of those two years of seclusion but turning the narrative focus towards Peter, whose relationship with Anne is tense at first but gradually softens until a brief romance begins.
Naturally, Annexedhas provoked controversy. Often, the first response of critics to a portrayal of the Holocaust in fiction is one of condemnation. Newspaper articles have already demonised Dogar for her audacity, overlooking the literary merits or otherwise of the book, as if these are entirely inconsequential. But such instant dismissals ignore the question of whether Dogar adds to her subject or detracts from it, whether she sheds new light on the Holocaust or whether the darkness of the subject matter simply overshadows any attempt at re-examining a familiar story.
Dogar’s decision to write the novel from Peter’s point of view is inspired; looking once again at Anne Frank’s diary this week, it occurred to me how his character is all but overwhelmed by the reader’s depth of feeling towards the diarist. But this is a teenage boy, separated from his friends, forced into an exasperating proximity to his parents and a family he barely knows. His frustration must have been overwhelming – almost as deeply felt as his fear and anxiety about the future.
Critics of Annexedhave focused almost exclusively on the sexualisation of Peter. He fantasises about a lost girlfriend, his dreams stain his bed sheets, his focus is on whether he will die a virgin. He is, in other words, a perfectly normal 16-year-old boy. To imagine that sex would not be one of his major pre-occupations is to ignore the reality of character. In this Dogar mirrors the original diary, where Anne's growing awareness of her attraction to Peter sits uncomfortably alongside her confusion about what these feelings mean. In doing so, one of the great criticisms of the book becomes, I think, one of its strengths.
That said, it is hard to know what the point of the novel is. Anne’s diary exists, after all. It’s a historical document, one of the most important of the last century. The director of the Anne Frank Trust has said that she doesn’t understand “why we have to fictionalise the Anne Frank story, when young people engage with it anyway”, and this is a valid point. To re-create the events of the Annexe seems superfluous, as the fictional account will always be secondary to its source material.
And yet, for all that, Peter’s story is complex and moving. His voice is eloquent and unashamed. A scene where he constructs a menorah in anticipation of Hanukkah, assigning each of the nine candles to an inhabitant of the attic, is deeply moving. His growing feelings of isolation manifest themselves through an increasing sense that the only real world is the one that exists in the attic. “Sometimes it feels as though my life before now was a dream,” he says. “Sometimes it feels as though the thought of any future can only ever be a dream.”
The latter part of the book, in which Peter’s transport and final days in Mauthausen concentration camp are recounted, is the most interesting section, for in these pages a work of imagination appears. Dogar allows herself to envisage what happened next, and it is, of course, bleak and upsetting, but I can’t help but feel this is the terrain in which the action of the novel should have played out rather than one that has already been fully described by a witness present for every moment.
Ultimately, Annexedleaves me with very ambivalent feelings. Dogar is a talented and brave writer. It's not that the novel doesn't work, as such; it just seems rather unnecessary. I can't imagine recommending it to young readers who have already read Anne Frank's diary, for what would be the point? I would be more likely to direct them towards a work of complete imagination, such as Zusak's The Book Thiefor Gleitzman's Once.
Annexedis certainly worth reading, but, like many works of literature, it may leave you with more questions than answers.
John Boyne’s second novel for children,
Noah Barleywater Runs Away
, is published on September 30th by Random House