While the original Anna Karenina is a doorstop of a novel, a nineteenth century work of literary realism whose power accumulates through dense detail over hundreds of pages, The Book of Anna is a slim, playful sequel set in the early twentieth century that is deeply attuned to the concerns of the twenty-first ... Boullosa takes a playful, postmodern approach to her material ... Sergei and Anya, Tolstoy’s characters, feel somewhat static on the page, while Boullosa’s own creations—particularly the anarchist Clementine and the canny Claudia—feel most alive ... The Book of Anna succeeds at defamiliarizing Tolstoy’s original, re-envisioning it through an entertaining feminist lens. It left me wanting to read more of Boullosa’s work — and hoping that more of it will soon be available to the English-speaking world.
Boullosa ingeniously gives Sergei and Anya a different kind of existence: they retain their fictional origin and are known to the other characters in the novel as the Karenina siblings given birth to by Tolstoy’s pen ... The historical figures in The Book of Anna—Kollontai, Father Gapon, the sailors on board the Potemkin—fulfill their roles in the historical narrative of 1905, but they, like wax figures in a museum, don’t inspire imagination or curiosity. One wishes that Boullosa’s inventive touch extended to them, so that Kollontai were not only history’s Kollontai, but also Boullosa’s ... there is a risk in writing a self-indulgent novel. It is not that the novel might be misunderstood or rejected by indifferent readers—who among us wants our children to befriend people who don’t care for them at all? The risk of writing a self-indulgent novel is that the author’s certainties may replace the characters’ uncertainties, and it is the latter that make up that illusory reality of fiction ... Sergei and Anya...are the two characters in The Book of Anna that come most alive on the page—a cliché that perhaps can be allowed this once. The siblings’ adult existence is invented by Boullosa. Their psychology, however, is not. Their psychology is not even invented by Tolstoy. Their childhoods are. Their psychology, like yours and mine, can be described and dissected, but, like yours and mine, it remains elusive ... The risk Boullosa takes in writing a novel featuring Tolstoy’s characters pays off because underneath the slim Book of Anna is Anna Karenina, a novel that encompasses life, from haymaking to ballroom dancing, with characters in high society and the servants’ quarters. Her novel is filled with impish touches that reminded me, as I read, of watching dragonflies next to a pond when I was a child ... yet when a book is so deeply rooted in Tolstoy’s work, the bar is inevitably set at Tolstoy’s, rather than Gorky’s, height.
A madcap romp through St. Petersburg jumbles fiction together with history, anarchists with royalists, sense with nonsense ... an absurdist tour de force account of early revolutionary activity ... It seems that Anna Karenina has left behind not one but two manuscripts written in an opium-fueled state. The second of these, a fairy tale about a girl named Anna, drives the latter half of Boullosa’s book. What does this all add up to? Who could say? The czar is taking a bubble bath, but the masses are on the march. All roads seem to point toward revolution ... Reminiscent of Bolaño, Borges, and Pynchon, but Boullosa’s utterly original voice is at its best when it’s let loose.