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4.0 out of 5 stars Almost a Great Novel, 4 Jan 2012
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Anna Apparent (VMC) (Paperback)
A novel exploring what happens to 'damaged' or abused children as they become adults. Bawden gives us two heroines who both suffer terrible experiences as children, and shows us the very different way they develop as they become adults. Annie-May suffers abuse on a Welsh hill farm as a child evacuee during World War II after her mother is killed in the Blitz. She is treated like an animal, sent to sleep in the barn and barely fed. From this she is rescued by Crystal, an elegant middle-class woman whose husband is divorcing her, and who seeks a new meaning for her life in the child, who she renames Anna. Anna grows up quiet, and seemingly placid. She marries Crystal's son Giles (an adult at the time Crystal adopts the six-year-old Anna) and settles down to a quiet life in the countryside. But is this quiet, rather shy and innocent woman who Anna really is? Soon we begin to suspect that Anna spends most of her time playing a variety of roles, particularly when she becomes the mistress of a young journalist. Does Anna herself really know who she is underneath the roles she adopts? Anna's story contrasts with that of Giles's first wife, Tottie (Charlotte), who, after a happy childhood in Germany, was sent to a concentration camp in World War II. All her Jewish family perished, but Tottie survives, comes to London, gets a good job in publishing and ends her marriage to Giles (who met her on the liberation of Belsen) with great dignity. While Anna feels constantly that she has to create a personality for herself in order to be loved, Tottie is bravely honest.

The first two parts of this novel are truly excellent: a quite profound meditation on the effect that abuse and cruelty has on young people. With great sensitivity, Bawden shows us how Tottie survives because she is older than Anna, and has the memory of a happy childhood behind her, while Anna, very young at the time of her abuse, is profoundly damaged, and feels that she has to create a false 'good' persona to make the kindly but none-too-bright Crystal love her. There are some wonderfully-created characters: the Welsh villagers; Tottie's elegant boss Ivan and Giles's old-school English relatives.

The trouble is that Bawden really needed to write a much longer novel to deal with such complex issues. The final section of the book feels rushed, and frankly quite implausible. We are never sure why Anna marries Giles, what she feels about him or Daniel, and if - with the dramatic incident which takes place towards the end of the novel - if we're meant to feel that Anna is in fact in some sense psychotic, or if she is to be pitied. There are a few silly touches (I don't believe anyone would call their sons Peregrine and Merlin if they were as intelligent as Anna and Giles, and Giles becomes quite appallingly hearty in places). Also, Tottie virtually fades out in the novel in the final section, which makes the drama suddenly seem rather lopsided - a story about two women has suddenly become one about Anna alone. The ending of the novel is also inconclusive - we are left with no idea about what Anna will do, if she feels guilty about her past (particularly the recent past) and whether she has really come to self-knowledge.

All in all a book with some wonderful things in it, but I couldn't help feeling it was almost like a first draft of a much bigger, and wider-reaching novel.
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Anna Apparent (VMC Book 152)
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