When I read a well-executed historical novel, it typically sends me on a mini research bender where I try to read up on the era or the event as much as I can. I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon is one of those novels.
The historical event it’s woven around is the Russian Revolution – actually, two separate ones – that occurred in 1917 and led to the abdication and eventual assassination of Tsar Nicholas II. Along with Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, their five children, and the Romanov’s four remaining servants perished. Or did they?
For decades after the imperial family’s massacre, a persistent rumor made rounds of European capitals (and some parts of the United States) that one of the Romanov children – a daughter named Anastasia – survived. In the winter of 1920, a young woman bearing a striking resemblance to the princess was pulled out of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin after a suicide attempt. She was scarred with what looked like bullet and stab wounds (the manner of death of the Romanovs), and she was traumatized by something unspeakable that had happened in her past.
Initially, she refused to give her name and discuss her past, but eventually she began claiming that she was Anastasia Romanov. As she embarked on a quest to prove her identity through the courts, she used the alias of Anna Anderson, given to her in an asylum where she had spent a few years.
The ensuing legal drama, and the media battle between the supporters and the opponents of the woman’s claim, lasted throughout Anna’s long life (she died in 1984).
I Was Anastasia recounts the story of both women.
The novel has an interesting narrative structure. Anna’s story is told backward beginning in 1972 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when her last court appeal to establish her identity fails in Germany. The story of Anastasia starts in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the February Revolution in 1917. It takes some getting used to, but this manner of telling makes senses as the two narratives converge toward the closest point between the imperial family’s assassination in July 1918 and Anna’s discovery in the waters of the Berlin canal in 1920.
What happened in between? Was Anna the lost Russian princess and heiress to the Romanov fortune, or was she a fraud and a schemer intent on claiming a title and an inheritance that was not rightfully hers? Or was something entirely different at play?
Well-researched, fast-paced, and deeply moving, I Was Anastasia is a tribute to victims of wars, whether high- or lowborn, and a meditation on the nature of loss, trauma, survival, and identity.
If you enjoy historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited, and available in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.