- Title: The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself
- Author: Penny Busetto
- Publisher: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
- Number of pages: 155
- Year of publication: 2014
- Category: Fiction
Penny Busetto’s The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is an experimental fusion of literature and psychology – issues of memory, identity, self and existentialism are handled with sagacity. The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is a divided into three parts: the first part is titled ‘Book of the Present’, the second part is ‘Book of Memory’ and the last part is ‘Book of the Future’.
That first part, ‘Book of the Present’, is narrated from the first person point of view, in the form of diary entries, and it accounts for about 75% of the book. Anna P lives on an island off the coast of Italy. She works as a substitute teacher and has been with the island’s local school over 20 years. She suffers from amnesia and ‘absences’. She cannot remember how she got to the island and how her life was before she got there. Days pass and she cannot remember how she spent them. ‘So many of my days pass with nothing to say for themselves, when I can’t even remember what I have eaten, I can remember no sensations, no thoughts’ (p 81).
Anna P lives a solitary life. Outside work, the only person she has some sort of relationship with is a female sex worker called Sabrina, whom she occasionally spends the night with in a nondescript hotel on the mainland. The people on the island try to guess where she comes from and what her story is but she is largely left alone. She also gets close to one of her students, Ugo, due to his fragility. Ugo is bullied by his classmates and maltreated by his grandparents, with whom he lives.
Changes begin creeping into her orderly, quiet life when she is invited for a conversation by Police Inspector Lupo. He tells her that people are curious about her and where she comes from and promises to investigate her origins to see if she has an outstanding case trailing her. Anna P keeps the diary in a bid to hold memories since her mind is a sieve. She tells Inspector Lupo she does not have any idea about where she is from and he does not believe her.
Ugo starts visiting Anna P at home and she takes him in and starts taking care of him. She connects to Ugo emotionally and she finds that her life changes positively. But, her patronage of Sabrina and her relationship with Ugo become part of Inspector Lupo’s investigation and she seems to have a role in some unresolved murder cases. Inspector Lupo also obtains her medical file from a mental hospital in South Africa and it states that she is unstable and her condition is unimproved.
Things reach a crescendo when Inspector Lupo visits Anna P in her hotel room and rapes her. During intercourse, she smashes his head repeatedly with an ashtray and he dies. It is clear that the pressure in her life has become too much to bear, and she is on the verge of losing her mind. She runs to the island and goes to the school to fetch Ugo. She sets her house on fire then runs away with Ugo.
To understand the origins of Anna P’s grim life, in the second part of the novel, ‘Book of Memory’, we learn that Anna P’s father sexually abuses her when she is ten years old. Anna P is admitted to a mental hospital, does not say anything during psychiatric sessions but looks back on her life in flashbacks. This second part is narrated in the third person.
Anna P clearly suffers a lot of abuse, leading to a fracturing of her mind, to the point that she blanks out a lot of the details of her life. It makes one wonder about her environment, her mother, her schoolteachers and how they fail to realise what is going on. The only respite comes when she kills her alcoholic father by pushing him down the staircase. She gets no cure at the hospital, despite the electric shocks, and is sent by her mother to Rome, Italy, to study, and from there she goes to the island.
The last part of the novel, which is the ‘Book of the Future’, is narrated in the second person. It is the briefest part of the book and traces the tiring and crazy flight of Anna P and the abducted schoolboy, Ugo. They come to an isolated place where they are taken in by a farmer, Antonio, and his sister, Elisabetta.
Penny Busetto writes beautiful prose with lines that read like poetry. It is easy to see why this book has been shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature:
Waves generated by the pull of wind and moon, generate degenerate. The salty smell, the seaweed smell, the smell of breaking waters, returning to the amniotic waters, to the holding, floating warmth, the lungs filled with fluid. Sightless eyes, there is nothing to see, tiny fishes have nibbled her nose, her eyes, her lips, featureless foetal face, flat, bleached, bloodless. But she has no connection, no umbilical cord attaching her to a life source (p 72).
Busetto’s novel achieves universality in its language, storyline and sensibilities. It opens with an intriguing first sentence, ‘As I hurry from the harbour to my classroom, the school secretary, Signor Cappi, stops me and hands me a letter’. All these make the book captivating. The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is an experience hard to shake off even long after the reading; it will stay with its readers for a lifetime.
Photograph: ‘Dear Diary’ by ayomide!
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