Imagine living in a confined space with seven other people for over two years. Imagine having your privacy shattered. Imagine that every breath, movement and thought is heard by everyone around you - yet the fear of being heard remains. That is what Anne Frank had to face every day. She dealt with this by writing in her world acclaimed diary. A diary that has been read by millions of people in 67 different languages. So how - and why - would anyone go and change that, by writing a new diary from the perspective of the boy who loved her, to use the book's slogan. Imaginably, it's a difficult task to go about. Not just in the sense of writing it, but, also in the sense of whether it is morally correct or even offensive.
Annexed follows the life of Peter van Pels, from the day he goes into hiding until the day of his death in Mauthausen concentration camp. Throughout the book, Peter deals with his emotions towards the others in hiding, ranging from anger, hatred and love. Peter also matures throughout the book, as would be expected from a 15 year old. This means that much of the book involves - and is centred around - detailed descriptions of common teenage issues.
Writing Anne Frank's diary from Peter's perspective is an interesting idea, especially as the amount of information existing about Peter is very limited. This approach might even be tactical as it might appeal to boys more than the original diary. Boys may feel more encouraged to read if they can identify with the main character. The book also captured the emotions of the people in hiding very well and the projection of those emotions was well delivered. Throughout the book, if Peter was feeling frustrated, claustrophobic or hopeless, you would feel his pain. Some paragraphs in the book are very well expressed, where the torment and anguish of the situation really comes through. This makes certain parts particularly engaging but I cannot say that it holds throughout the book.
One aspect that I did very much like in the book, was the interweaving chapters. Every few chapters which takes place in the annexe, the book reverts back to the opening, where Peter is in the concentration camp. The effect that this gives is a great addition. First of all, the reality of the situation really pushes through. It shows that however bad the annexe was, nothing was worse than the concentration camp. It also shows the contrast between Peter as a boy and Peter when he was forced to be a man. It highlights Peter's growing maturity, and difference between his character before and during his suffering. It also accentuates how throughout the book, Peter becomes more and more like his character in the concentration camp and leaves behind his childish and ungrateful self.
A frequent annoyance in the book is repetition. On many occasions, repeats sentences for effect. I think that it is a brilliant device when well used but Annexed worked it in too many times. Rather than portraying a sense of urgency and helplessness, it seems to drone on, and is quite tiresome to read. It turns paragraphs from being gripping into a task to read. Other grammar devices that were used were also exasperating. There were too many rhetorical questions to have the desired effect. Rhetorical questions were used in almost every chapter to the point where it cut the reader off from the character. By having a narrative, where the character acts as if no one is listening, the reader instantly feels isolated from the character. Any intimacy or connections between the reader and the character are insignificant and 'erased'. While having rhetorical question is always a clever device, it should only be used when it can be used correctly. Peter is portrayed as not very articulate, which counteracts with Anne, who is very much so. This inability to put his feelings into words disrupts descriptive paragraphs and you constantly have this feeling that Peter is holding back. Even in his narrative you were deprived of a description of his emotions. Short sentences were also irritating. Likewise, they should only be used when they can be used well. The short sentences left me wondering whether Peter was capable of articulating sentences that consisted of more than six words. Rather than these devices having an engaging affect on the reader, it actually did the opposite.
Another frustrating element was that there was nothing to work with. Each chapter seemed like a repeat of the last. After all, what was expected when they were in hiding for two years, doing the same things every day. After a while, it got difficult to differentiate between chapters, as they had all seemed to merge into one.
Annexed has also come under scrutiny for whether it is right to have written a book like it. Were there more information about Peter, and it were more accurate, I think it would have been more morally correct. However, as there is a lack of information, I don't think it is correct to assume he was a certain way. I also don't think that it is fair to judge Peter from Anne's perspective. Much of the background from Peter's character originated from Anne's diary. This isn't at all a just way of getting an accurate character, as Anne was a very selective and harsh person. Her descriptions of other people in the annexe are often stretched and exaggerated. Anne might have thought of Peter completely differently than how he was in reality. Of course, there is also the aspect of whether it is correct to put words into somebody's mouth - especially someone who died in such circumstances. Many people say that this book crossed the line of respect that should have been shown. They believe that an ordeal such as Peter's earns him a higher level of respect that should be regarded.
I think that Annexed set out to be a promising book, but the way it was written let it down. The idea was there, but the execution compromised on the quality. I feel that the book was just a re-telling of Anne Frank's diary and that nothing new was really added. I think that if someone were to read Annexed without having read the diary, they would enjoy it but for anyone who has previously read the diary it would be a disappointment. Certain sections were interesting and worth reading but many sections did not live up to the high standards of the original diary. All in all, it was quite a pointless read.
"Everyone knows about Anne Frank and her life hidden in the secret annex - but what about the boy who was also trapped there with her?"
Annexed is a fictionalised account of Peter van Hels, who at sixteen years went into hiding alongside his parents and the Frank family to escape Nazi persecution. Having left behind the girl he loves, he struggles to cope with the claustrophobia and fear in the small attic rooms where he will spend the next two years. In particular he finds Anne annoying, with her constant questioning and belief in herself, to begin with the two clash. But as time goes by Peter and Anne come to an understanding and in the confines of the attic an affection grows between the two teenagers. But then in August 1944, the residents of the Annexed are discovered and Peter's story takes us beyond the attic and into the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
Like millions of others, when I read Anne Franks Diary at age Thirteen it changed something inside me and affected me like no other book since. I still remember how I felt when I'd finished it, how powerful, heart breaking, horrifying and inspirational I found it. When I first heard about Sharon Dogar's novel, Annexed, I was curious. I wanted to read it but was nervous. How would a fictionalised account of a real person who endured such horrific difficulties come across? Would the author be sensitive and do justice to these people? The book was already causing controversy and I wondered how I would feel about it.
The answer to those questions is that in my opinion Annexed is a stunning and completely respectful novel. Split into two parts, the first is told in a loose diary that chronicles the two years spent in hiding. While the format is that of a diary, with dates given before entries, it comes across as more of a story than a recording of someone's life. I think this is the right approach, as Sharon Dogar doesn't portray her interpretation of Peter as fact. We can't know what Peter felt, but she imagines him very well and his voice is astoundingly believable. We feel his frustration, the claustrophobia and fear in every word. His struggle to understand how a religion can spawn such hatred, questioning of his beliefs and feelings of powerlessness are extremely authentic. The book has been accused of being overtly sexualised and I have to disagree. Peter is sixteen when he goes into hiding and thinks about the girl he loved outside, worries about never making love. This sounds completely realistic to me. We know that from initial dislike a relationship developes between Peter and Anne and of course this is something he thinks about. They are living in such close confinement that surely their feelings are intensified and the author gets this across without being distasteful or disrespectful.
The second part of the book covers the period between capture in August 1944 and Peter's death in spring 1945 where the diary format is lost completely and becomes an entirely fictional account of his time at Auschwitz based on survivor accounts and the author's imagination. Of course this is the most shocking and harrowing part of the book, despite knowing what is going to happen it never looses impact. The writing in this section is stunning and powerful as Peter recalls the past while on the cusp of death in an almost dreamlike state. I cried and couldn't sleep afterwards thinking about how truly horrific the world can and has been. And this is why this book deserves to be read and Sharon Dogar was right to create it. To make sure we never forget.
Annexed is a brave, powerful and heart-breaking novel and I can only applaud the author for taking on such a difficult subject and making it work. It should be read by every teenager as they study this period of history at school, and in some ways I believe it will give a greater understanding and be more accessible, particularly to boys, than Anne's original diary. Some people believe that by fictionalising real life people from the not so distant past is wrong. I however think it keeps their memory alive and every now and then we need a book like this to remind us. As expected, a very difficult book to read but without doubt one that should be.
Published by Andersen Press September 2010
Thanks to the publishers for providing a copy for review.