Epic Annette sings of arms and a woman, who survived one war only to find herself in another, risking her life for a state that did not yet officially exist. The title is awkward, but accurate; it’s that most unusual of things, a modern, book-length work of epic poetry, following the life and times of a heroine English-speaking readers might never have heard of.
We meet Annette Beaumanoir as a teenager, living in Brittany at the outbreak of the second World War. She falls into casual work for the Resistance, passing messages and transferring goods, until she impulsively goes against their orders, rescuing two Jewish teenagers from a Nazi raid entirely on her own. After the war she becomes a professor of neurology, but her support for Algerian independence leads to work for the FLN, their National Liberation Front. Arrested by the French while pregnant, Annette is imprisoned before escaping to Tunisia, where she works as a doctor under Frantz Fanon.
These events are only the beginning of a life marked by political tumult, hope and tragedy. The beauty of Epic Annette’s chosen form is its ability to move between heroic and personal registers; its author, the poet and translator Anne Weber, leaves room for her own voice, offering wry and occasionally scathing asides on her subjects’ agendas, their betrayals and oversights. We watch as those Annette loves are hunted and murdered, and our heroine is denied recognition, then freedom, then, like Odysseus, her nostos, or homecoming.
While emulating an ancient form, Weber’s poem is charged with a political mission to bring to life stories historically left untold. It’s a bravura move that pays off; Epic Annette is a history lesson unlike any other, a nuanced, immensely moving testimony to an improbable life. Equally improbable are the circumstances of its creation; Weber first composed Epic Annette in German, then wrote it again in her second language, French. Her English translator, Tess Lewis, used both versions as sources, working to preserve the rhythms and shifts between colloquial asides and more elevated language. The result might not be for everyone, but for anyone who has wondered what a latter-day Iliad or Odyssey might look like, Annette’s exhilarating story does not disappoint.