Who says that historical novels can’t share characteristics of other kinds of fiction? Two new historical novels at The Field Library could be read as mysteries or even thrillers, while still demonstrating all the depths of historical detail and research, still illuminating the past, that the best historical fiction shows.
For decades people have been fascinated with the doomed Romanov family, executed in Ekaterinburg after the Russian Revolution, and one of the reasons for this fascination is the possibility that Grand Duchess Anastasia might have survived. Certainly there were people who claimed to be Anastasia, the most famous of whom was Anna Anderson, whose legal case to prove her relationship to the family of the Czar lasted for years. Out of this background comes the new novel, I Was Anastasia, by Ariel Lawhon, which looks at the Anna Anderson case and the facts, such as we know them, of the execution of Grand Duchess Anastasia with her family. The story starts with a young woman being pulled out of a freezing canal in Berlin in 1920, unable or unwilling to explain how she got there, but her body bears evidence of some horrible injuries. She looks startlingly like the famous Anastasia, and when she is able to speak, she claims to be that Anastasia. Some people want to believe her, others believe she’s just trying to steal the Romanov family fortune. Interspersed within this young woman’s story is the story of Anastasia and the fall of the Romanov family, all asking the big questions: what is identity? Who was telling the truth in this situation and what does the truth mean? With the structure of the modern unreliable narrator/multiple voices thriller mingled with the actual known facts of Anna Anderson’s lawsuit and Anastasia’s life, I Was Anastasia is a fascinating “what if?”
While Mary Monroe’s One House Over starts in the 1920’s, as I Was Anastasia does, this isn’t an unreliable narrator book, but more the kind of book that sets a long slow fuse between the happiness at the beginning of the book and the horrible things that are going to happen to the characters as a result of subtle things going on in the plot. As is often the case with this kind of thriller/suspense story, it starts out with the main characters in a happy place. Joyce and Odell Watson are living a good life in their small Alabama community in the 1920’s: a good, solid marriage, a thriving business, respect from their fellow residents, escape from poverty, a chance at a real family. The only fly in the ointment at the beginning is their sneaking desire to just cut loose once, see what it’s like not to be constrained by respectability. When their new neighbors turn out to be bootleggers, living the high life, the Watsons have their chance to try to be different. As they find out more about their neighbors’ shady past and their secrets, they try to pull away from them, but they discover that it’s much harder to walk away from friends like that than it is to let them insinuate themselves into your lives in the first place. And gradually, they find themselves in danger of losing everything they’ve ever valued.