Berlin 1920, intent on suicide a young woman is saved from drowning, but refuses to speak or give clues about her identity. Two years later she claims to be Anastasia and lives with that conviction until her death in 1984. Morrissy has created a fictional history for Franziska Schanzkowska who successfully donned the mantle of the doomed princess.
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Mary Morrissey's second novel The Pretender, begins with an utterly fascinating premise: why should a Polish factory worker claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II? The novel unwinds smoothly in time, from Virginia in 1978 to post-First World War Berlin and finally to a childhood in rural Poland at the turn of the last century. There is something of Miss Havisham in the demeanour and behaviour of the first Anastasia--"a magnificent relic, a holy totem", whose life has been "as volatile as the century itself". She is almost deaf and imperiously selfish, with "a corrupted memory". She has been saved from herself by a former history professor with a "genealogical envy" for her Romanov past, who marries her to enter a royal dynasty. He not only dotes on her but more importantly believes in her.
It's a shame to leave this strange, symbiotic couple to their increasing squalor but Morrissey is more interested in exploring Anastasia's unreliable memory and takes the action to a hospital in Berlin in 1922, where a young woman who has been saved from drowning in the canal has forgotten her identity. Moved to an asylum where she's called Fraulein Unbekannt, the Unknown Woman, she refuses to speak and believes herself guilty of a crime. She is exempted from communal duties and washing, and treated with special privileges by the staff. When a fellow inmate reads an extract from a newspaper detailing the missing Anastasia, she resolves to "incubate a Princess" as an escape. Although the title of the novel does in a sense spoil the delicate ambiguity of Anastasia's "true" identity before the text itself does, the way the author teases out the "real" identity of the protagonist is brilliantly done. As though delusion is her cure, the woman grasps an alternative past to mask her guilt and loss, inventing a history that will protect her from poverty and anonymity. She pinches stories from other characters, much as a fiction writer will do, and twists events to bolster the notion of her tragic life. The climax of the book is delayed a little too long, but when it comes, it provides convincing emotional clues as to why a peasant Polish girl, with a great appetite for love, should fancy herself as royalty and seek immunity for her crime. --Cherry SmythFrom the Publisher:
Historical fiction at its best
'An astonishing tale. She writes with conviction, passion and tenderness. A marvellous, inventive, lyrical book' Fay Weldon, Mail on Sunday
‘A close, sensitive and tender study of Franziska Schanzkowska – the Polish factory worker who claimed to be Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. The Pretender is a most sympathetic and careful reconstruction of an extraordinary story by one of Ireland’s finest writers’ Penelope Fitzgerald
The compelling story of Anastasia has always fascinated and captivated readers, and here Mary Morrissy creates the tragic story of the mysterious young woman who deceived the world into thinking she was the last surviving daughter of the Tsar Nicholas II. The young woman, saved from suicide in a freezing Berlin canal in 1920, was dramatically shown after her death to be an imposter.
Who was this young woman? And what was her past, her friends and family, that she abandoned to take on a new life? From the few known facts Morrissy creates the biography of a nobody, a Polish factory worker whose childhood is set against the First World War and the turmoil of vanquished Germany, a childhood blighted by violence, trauma and loss, who makes the world believe she is a grand duchess, the last of doomed royal dynasty.
‘An unputdownable psychological mystery…richly poetic...the tragic climax is breathtaking’ Sunday Telegraph
‘One of the subtlest and most penetrating of the latest generation of Irish writers’ John Banville
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Book Description Vintage Books. PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0099283670. Bookseller Inventory # 9780099283676