by Sharon Dogar (Andersen Press, 2010)
"Will we be imaginary one day? Will we be just like one of Anne's stories? Or worse, will the story that survives be the Nazi one - that we were only ever good enough to be wiped out. How? How could anybody do this?"
I didn't know quite what to expect from this novel. The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my favourite books of all time, so the idea of a novelisation of the same events was simultaneously exciting and just a little bit worrying. Happily - and to my great relief - I found that for the most part, Dogar's endeavour manages to walk the fine line between 'respectful tribute' and 'artistic license' quite successfully!
The book is written from the point of view of Peter van Pels, the teenage son of the family in hiding with the Franks. It begins with Peter watching his (entirely fictional) girlfriend Liese and her family being rounded up and driven away. He can only stand in the road in despair. He makes his way reluctantly to the warehouse to join the Frank family - and his first impressions don't exactly fill him with joy... But slowly he adapts to life in the annexe, finds a new strength he didn't know he had, and begins an odd flirtation with livewire Anne.
This romantic element seems to be the main issue for many of the novel's detractors, but actually I found it quite subtle and entirely plausible. In such a confined space, with hormones raging and very little to engage their attention elsewhere, I found it completely believable that precocious young Anne could set her sights on Peter - and that he might feel extremely conflicted about it, but also tempted by her quick wit and cheerful charm. I occasionally found Peter's narrative a little self-conscious and slow, even manipulative at times, and it didn't have all the little details about daily life that made Anne's journal really come alive, but I still enjoyed it! I thought Dogar's depiction of the various characters living in the annexe was spot-on, and she captured the experience of a frustrated teenage boy rather well.
Unlike Anne's iconic diary, which obviously ended just before the annexe's occupants were found and taken away, Dogar extends her novel right through to Auschwitz and beyond - and this is where I thought she really excelled. Peter's whole narrative is precipitated by his flood of memories as he lies in the sick bay at Mauthausen, deliriously waiting for the call to wake up and start another day in hell. Between chapters there are occasional interjections from the dying boy to remind the reader that this is not going to end well. After they are captured Peter describes the horrendous train journey out of Amsterdam, the separation from his mother and the Frank women, how he learned to survive in the camps, and how he lost his father to the gas chambers. I could barely read the last twenty pages or so, I was crying so hard.
At the end of the day, it may be uncomfortable reading but I don't think we can ever remind ourselves too often of the evil that humanity has perpetuated in the past, especially when hatred and ignorance are still used as excuses to inflict pain on minority groups today. It really is well worth a read, whether you're already familiar with The Diary of a Young Girl or not, and I think it would make fantastic supplementary material for a high school project, for example. Dogar includes a brief epilogue at the end of the book explaining where and how each of the characters died, as well as a short bibliography which includes seminal works of Holocaust literature like Primo Levi's If This is a Man and Elie Wiesel's Night. Recommended.
- "I'm in the attic. The sun shines and I sit in it and read. The book makes time change. Stops it hanging. Somewhere I can hear the breeze in the tree behind me. I can feel the sun on my back and the pages turn and I forget. There are only the people on the page and what will happen next. What will happen to the people in the book, not what will happen to me... I forget everything."
- "It's been snowing. I stand in the attic, waiting for Anne, and stare at the branches of the chestnut tree all covered in white. There are stars behind it. The night is a clear, strange blue. I know I could paint all my life. But I could never make a blue that dark. That deep. That beautiful. I could never make stars like little holes of light in the night. Even van Gogh couldn't do it."
- "Sometimes, in the camp, her words came to me. Appeared in my head out of nowhere. They came like a taunt. A curse. A dream from another world that has no meaning here. They made me hope she died quickly. Quickly. That she walked into the chambers full of love, courage and hope - and went out like a light. A bright light. Not like this. This living death."
- "'I want people to know, Peter. I want them to feel what we feel. What it's like to be scared. What it's like to look out of the window and see your own people led away whilst you're safe in your bed. What it's like to eat whilst they starve. If they know, if they feel it too, then they can never do this again, can they?' Her eyes are alight. Blazing. Burning."
- "'They're fighting for us,' I say, and it feels like a miracle again, that there are people from all over the world, fighting. Fighting to allow the differences between us. Living for us. Dying for us."
- "In those first minutes the seconds fell like hours. We sat shaved and uniformed and numbered. Häftlinge now, unable to wake to the shock of that final parting we didn't even know had happened, yet sensed within us - a severing from our women, from ourselves - the first of many to come as we are kicked, or beaten or hanged or shot, or taken into the showers that turn water into gas. There are so many ways to part with life."
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.