Book review: The Anniversary, Stephanie Bishop

All at sea: an anniversary on a cruise ship leads to traumatic circumstances.

The Anniversary imbues a sense of quietness. Narrated in the first person past tense means the reader is swept up into protagonist JB Blackwood’s story, which seamlessly interweaves distant past with current events. Award-winning author Stephanie Bishop’s attention to detail reveals the minutiae of an intimate relationship, pitched against the backdrop of a life-changing traumatic event. The visceral descriptions of JB’s trauma are relatable, her subsequent grief and floundering self-doubt recognisable in their everydayness.  

After just enough background to set the scene, the plot jumps straight into action, gripping the reader in a whirlwind of tumult. Reframing pleasurable events – the ‘halcyon days when real life could not touch’ the fracturing relationship of JB and her husband, Patrick – in the harsh setting of interrogative interviews – is confronting in its ruthlessness. The audience is not spared JB’s personal anguish. Rather, they witness her distress as ‘grief move[s] through [her], as if it were coming up from within the earth itself’.

The sense of anticipation is palpable: how will JB cope after pivotal aspects of her life have changed her irrevocably? She theorises and philosophises at critical junctures, a seemingly odd reaction that is, in fact, all too common in extreme circumstances, when someone is trying to make sense of extraordinary situations.

The novel is divided into four books covering distinct phases of the protagonist’s journey. Accordingly, each section has a different mood, which maintains interest. As in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, crucial events are exposed early and returned to multiple times, each reconsideration layering meaning and impact through increasing familiarity and intimacy.

Bishop masters this technique, which always remains fresh no matter how many times a scene is revisited. The narration parries forwards and backwards: the natural ebb and flow of a person’s reminiscences within their daily activities. The result is a portrayal of marriage as a tightly woven fabric, the threads provided by perceptions and interpretations of individual events fostered within the ‘nostalgia’ JB feels ‘entitled to’.

An interesting feature of Bishop’s writing is that the direct speech is reported without quotation marks. This can be disorientating, especially when it reflects the emotional state of the protagonist. In a stressful situation it’s difficult to distinguish between what JB says out loud and what she is thinking. The resulting surrealism is ‘a kind of awe – the sublime terror of someone else’s pain’.

Key themes are abandonment, family, infidelity and creativity. These themes turn upside down as happenings are exposed from inside the marriage. Because ‘so many of us want the thing we pretend to hate’, there is a moment of sickening realisation when the protagonist has ultimately been ‘defined by the very relationship [she’d] sought to escape’.  

Creativity is explored in depth. The tension between the joys of pure creation – the private life of an artist – and the compromises made to gain commercial success – being an artist in the public eye – are starkly contrasted and scrutinised at length. Writer JB and her film director husband navigate the privacy/fame divide in varying ways at different points in their careers. JB laments that she ‘probably always would be overshadowed by Patrick’ and that, even when tragedy strikes, ‘he had the power to eclipse [her] own achievements’. 

Read: Book review: Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton

Everybody experiences grief and loss at some stage. When that happens, this book will offer solace for, although the circumstances will vary, the emotions – and the dislocation behind them – are universal. The highly accessible narrative respects the intelligence of its readers by allowing them to fill in the gaps. The Anniversary unveils a riveting plot, which is gently and tenderly told, one that will surely be appreciated by a wide audience. 

The Anniversary, Stephanie Bishop
Publisher: Hachette
ISBN: 9780733649165
Format: Paperback
Pages: 432pp
Publication date: 29 March 2023
RRP: $32.99

Annabel Harz is a career teacher, burgeoning editor and an emerging writer. She released her first book in 2017. Her second release, Journey into the Shadow and the Sunshine, was released in October 2021.