The Anniversaryby Stephanie Bishop
For fans of Lisa Halliday and Susan Choi, The Anniversary is a simmering page-turner about an ascendant writer, the unresolved death of her husband, and what it takes to emerge on her own
Novelist J.B. Blackwood is on a cruise with her husband, Patrick, to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Her former professor, film director, and cult figure, Patrick is much older than J.B.. When they met, he seemed somehow ageless, as all gods appear in the eyes of those who worship them. But now his success is starting to wane and J.B. is on the cusp of winning a major literary prize. Her art has been forever overseen by him, now it may overshadow his.
For days they sail in the sun, nothing but dark water all around them. Then a storm hits and Patrick falls from the ship. J.B. is left alone, as the search for what happened to Patrick – and the truth about their marriage – begins.
Propulsive and fiercely intelligent, The Anniversary is exquisitely written with a swift and addictive plot. It’s a novel that asks: how legible, in the mind of the writer, is the line between reality and plot? How do we refuse the people we desire? And what is the cost, to ourselves, to others and to our art, if we don’t?
A New York Times Editor’s Choice
“Eventful and atmospheric . . . deliciously complex . . . In its latter half, The Anniversary grows into a feminist commentary on the nature of mysteries and marriages . . . The Anniversary is similar to contemporary books like Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in the ways it tackles gender and power, but it offers the pleasures of the Gothic novel too — houses and relationships full of secrets, and a narrator with an uncertain grasp on reality.”—New York Times Book Review
“Beguiling and incisive in equal measure.”—Publishers Weekly
“Bishop expertly dissects the innards of a seesaw relationship and the inequities women must battle. The bristling arguments crackle brilliantly. In the end, ‘did she or did she not’ is almost beside the point. It’s the marriage that keeps us engaged.”—Booklist
“If you are making a list for summer reading, you can’t do much better than Stephanie Bishop’s The Anniversary . . . [a] smart, entertaining novel.”—ArtsFuse
“Elegant and highly accomplished… Dangerously readable… If only all novels were this engaging and this perceptive about human nature.”—The Guardian (UK)
“A psychologically layered landscape that simultaneously holds in suspension and keeps in play the crime-genre structure of the book… Bishop honours the feminist spin she puts on the crime genre.”—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“A stylish read you won’t be able to put down.”—Times (UK)
“Impossible to put down… Excellent.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“This novel goes beyond suspense, tackling gender power imbalances and slipping into metafiction… A compulsive yet redemptive book layered with nuances.”—Financial Times (UK)
“The Anniversary is bejewelled with lovely moments and undeniably exquisite writing, a fine education about desire… An admirable and ambitious investigation into some troublesome contemporary things about men and women and the forces of desire, not just sexual but creative desire.”—Sydney Morning Herald (AU)
“The Anniversary is a haunting mystery, sophisticated, subtle and subversive. Bishop considers the discipline, scrupulous and otherwise, required to make a marriage, as well as to make art, capturing the longing and the disappointment inherent in the attempt to make one’s self known to others.”—Susanna Moore, author of In the Cut
“Absolutely addictive. When reading The Anniversary, I found myself forgetting who I am or where I was. Only art that exudes brilliance can conjure this state.”—Szilvia Molnar, author of The Nursery
“The Anniversary is seductive, mysterious, and fiercely intelligent. Bishop peels back, with great insight and artistry, layer after layer of her character’s psyche, laying bare the singular pleasures and secret resentments at the center of any marriage, any life. This is a book to be savored for its elegant sentences and psychological depth, but you’ll be hard-pressed not to devour it in a few voracious sittings.” —Sara Freeman, author of Tides
“Bracing and mesmeric, with bursts of insight and dark descents into secrecy and unknowing, The Anniversary charts a course through the unruly landscape of self-expression and self-deception, exploring the perils of a woman’s power in art and marriage. I was captivated as much by its truths as by its treatment of deceit in fiction and life.”—Charmaine Craig, author of My Nemesis
“Tense, elegant, sensuous.”—Niamh Campbell, author of We Were Young
“In The Anniversary Stephanie Bishop expertly and mercilessly builds an atmosphere of intense uncertainty and threat. You won’t want to put it down.”—Chris Power, author of Mothers
“The dread that slowly creeps into your bones while reading The Anniversary is difficult to shake off, yet you cannot look away. I reveled in every bit of this astute, compelling, psychological novel.”—Virginia Feito, author of Mrs March
“Such a stylish, incisive novel, tight with suspense and powerful insight. I loved it and will be recommending it far and wide.”—Megan Hunter, author of The Harpy
“Exquisite, profound, and utterly exhilarating: The Anniversary is a stunning achievement.”—Mark Brandi, author of Wimmera
“I absolutely loved The Anniversary, a literary thriller that is simultaneously addictive, compelling, and deeply clever.”—Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of Everyone is Still Alive
“Stephanie Bishop’s The Anniversary is literature at its very, very best — her talent shimmers off every single page, her prose is exquisite and her observations about the complexities and competitiveness of intimate relationships, the chaos of the human condition and the inexorable tension between love, family, creativity and art-making are second to none. This novel is an absolute triumph in every respect.”—Lucia Osborne-Crowley, author of My Body Keeps Your Secrets
“Very addictive and so smart— a fever dream about a writer getting everything they want and living out all their nightmares at the same time.”—Rebecca May Johnson, author of Small Fires
“Nothing in this exquisitely twisted tale is quite what it seems. But though the cool, sharp, disenchanted narrator is not to be trusted, one thing about her is for real — her ability to say things so witty and so pungently true I kept turning down pages to mark them. If I kept a commonplace book I would have filled it with lines from this compelling novel about creativity and its discontents.”—Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike
Excerpted from The Anniversary © 2023 by Stephanie Bishop. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
That day on the boat we lay together a little longer in our cabin, then he rolled away and got up to shower. Afterwards he pulled on his swimming trunks. I wanted him to stay with me, but he seemed suddenly irritable, fidgety. I just need to cool off, he said, get some air. Are you coming? he asked.
Maybe, I said. I’ll follow soon. He took a bathrobe, pushed his feet into the complimentary slippers then headed for the top deck where there was the pool and the casino.
The sea was so still. Outside, I imagined the air to be soft and balmy. I thought I could stay on the ship forever, travel around and around the globe, become accustomed to no longer feeling the earth beneath my feet, and in this way turn leathery in the sun while feasting on pineapple and mango and melons. I did not follow Patrick immediately – I was sleepy from our exertions, and after showering I lay down to rest a while. I had a book and although I intended to read, I must have scarcely made it through a paragraph before I fell fast asleep. When I woke it was dark, and the ship was tilting this way and that. Our porthole was just above sea level, and as the ship heaved I saw first the sky, then just ocean – the porthole like a wounded eye that swings down over and over again into a basin of cloudy water. Then up again, to blink. Patrick wasn’t there. I pulled on my clothes and went above deck in search of him.
We were sailing past the Kamchatka Peninsula and towards the Sea of Okhotsk. As I climbed the stairs, an announcement came through the speaker system. The crew asked that all passengers return to their cabins, as a storm was about to hit. There was no way to sail around it, the swell was already high and the water rough. But when I reached the Lido deck there was still a cluster of people out by the pool and plenty by the bar inside, so I too ordered something, thinking why not, thinking it might at least dull the nerves, as I looked about for Patrick. Behind me a fat man was laughing loudly, smacking his thigh with his hand. Maybe it was just precautionary, the warning. A formality for insurance reasons, or something like that; once the risk was stated, the responsibility would be ours alone. Then I spotted Patrick near the roulette table – he was gesticulating, making a bet it seemed. When I reached him he put a finger to his lips, his eyes fixed on the wheel as the ball went round and round then settled. He whooped with glee and swiftly placed another bet, pulling a wad of cash from the pocket of his bathrobe to exchange for more chips. He was drunk, he must have been up there on his own for hours while I slept, his hair damp from swimming. His chest and face were sunburnt from the morning. He leant on me as he eyed the circling ball. And then he lost. He was insistent that they keep playing, that he place another bet although he had no money and no line of credit to hand, and so became aggressive: loud, wild, roughly spoken.
Then the storm hit. No one had predicted the size of the waves: ten metres, with winds up to eighty kilometres per hour. So they told me later. I had just picked up my drink when all of a sudden the furniture started sliding from one side of the room to the other, there was the sound of glass breaking, people screaming. Pot plants and tables crashed first into one wall, then the next. I held on to whatever I could: benches, a pillar in the centre of the room. Outside there was the flash of lightning. The ship tilted again, the furniture skidding and smashing. Then everything went very quiet, very still. I could hear a woman crying. I crawled towards Patrick, clinging to the broken furniture. People were starting to stand and brush themselves off. Patrick had been slammed back against the wall when the storm first struck and now, as I reached to help him, he pushed me away. He scrambled to his feet and started to head back to the bar. Then, all of a sudden, he collapsed into an armchair and closed his eyes. I had taken my anti-nausea pills but Patrick had not, and the storm, mixed with the alcohol, overwhelmed him; a moment later he pushed himself up to standing. I think I’m going to be sick, he said as he stumbled towards the deck. The door was unlocked, I saw him shove it open and step out into the darkness. I watched him for a moment, wondering if I should go to help, thinking he’d prefer to throw up on his own because he never liked anyone around when he was sick or feeble. I’d hurt myself when the storm first struck and felt a little stunned. Then the ship tilted again, more violently this time, and I heard him calling to me. J.B., he called, as he liked to call me, using not my real name but my middle initials under which I published. J.B. Come out, J.B.! His voice cut through the noise of the storm, as it has always been able to cut through anything. The sound of glasses shattering. The sight of the looming dark waves outside and then water crashing down over the railings. I followed him.
As I reached the door I lost my balance, slipping on the wet floor. Outside, the night was cold and the ocean very loud. I found him bent over, one hand clinging to the railings. I reached out to touch his back, but he brushed my hand away. Only once before had I seen him vomit from drunkenness. Generally, I discouraged him from drinking more than a glass or two. While it made others relaxed and convivial, after a few drinks he would get cranky. Or maybe tetchy is the word. Sometimes mad. And so I’d often quietly draw his glass towards me and, while he was talking, finish it myself.
Let me help you back inside, I said, again putting my hand on his back. Again he shrugged it off. He lifted his face towards me then and said something he perhaps would not have said were he not so drunk. Something he must have been storing up. Something he must have been trying not to say. Something he must have thought of frequently, but at intervals. Something terrible that I would later try to forget.
1. The Anniversary presents a dark psychological mystery in the aftermath of Patrick’s death. As the investigation of his fall progresses, Bishop reveals layers of truth about the events leading up to his death. How did your perception of J.B.’s role in Patrick’s death change as you read? Do you think J.B.’s perception of her role in his death also changed?
2. Though we know J.B. is a British citizen, her racial and cultural background is left ambiguous until halfway through the book (p. 225). How, if at all, did learning that J.B.’s father grew up in India change or complicate your reading of the book? How is it important to understanding her character?
3. J.B.’s books reflect events from her own life, even as she adamantly maintains her writing is fictional. Her memories blur together with scenes she has written. Patrick’s catastrophic disappearance is even compared to similar events from J.B.’s writing. Talk about the lines between fiction and reality. Are J.B.’s books fictional? How do they inform events in her life, and vice versa?
4. The disappearance of J.B.’s mother in her childhood looms large throughout the book and in J.B.’s writing. Discuss the developments of this storyline in the book’s final chapters.
5. The Anniversary is interspersed with detailed scenes from J.B.’s childhood, especially the moments surrounding her mother’s disappearance. Talk about these scenes. How did they help you understand J.B. as an adult? How did you read them in conversation with the events unfolding in the novel?
6. How does Patrick’s role in J.B.’s writing career affect J.B.’s self-concept? Her concept of their marriage?
7. How do you think Patrick’s perception of J.B. changes over the course of their marriage? What power dynamics did you see at play between them over the years?
8. Throughout the first half of the book, we only know the main character by the initials J.B. It isn’t until halfway through the book, when she travels to stay with her sister’s family in Australia, that we hear her referred to by her first name: Lucie. What is the significance of this shift? What do the two names—J.B. and Lucie—tell us about her?
9. When reflecting on the inadequacy of her Japanese language skills to help her navigate the aftermath of Patrick’s disappearance, J.B. observes, “All of the language I had was about desire, about want—the language of the tourist . . . I knew no words for repulsion, for dislike . . . I never learnt how to refuse something” (p. 88). How might this observation speak not only to J.B.’s knowledge of Japanese, but to her struggle to assert her own voice, agency, and desire throughout the novel?
10. As she prepares to speak at a reading, J.B. reflects: “How I longed to be treated as Patrick was . . . to be granted without question that kind of artistic authority that let him say and do as he pleased” (p. 123). How does gender affect “artistic authority”? In what ways are male artists celebrated for doing “as they please”? How does gender influence your own ability to command authority; to do as you like?
11. J.B. describes the stylistic departure of her most recent and successful novel from her previous work: while she used to write in “unisex” sentences, she now sees “that the unisex sentence is just the male sentence assuming its universality” (p. 124). Her new book, written in her “very own sentences, uninherited and wholly inhabited at last . . . [made her] into the woman writer that, for one reason or another, [she] had long thought [she] ought not to be” (pp. 124-125). Talk about this. What does it mean for sentences to have a gender? To be “fully inhabited”? What made it difficult for J.B. to reach this point “at last”?
12. J.B. notes that “In a story . . . the feeling of not knowing what happens next is often a thing of pleasure—the cornerstone of our delight” (p. 163). Does this describe your experience of reading The Anniversary? During which moments in the story did you feel least certain of what might happen next?
13. Talk about Ada, J.B.’s publisher. She sticks by J.B. unquestioningly both professionally and personally. What makes Ada such a loyal friend to J.B.? Is their friendship reciprocal?
14. Do you think J.B. is a reliable narrator? If there were parts of the book where you felt she was unreliable, what made you think she wasn’t telling the truth?
15. J.B. reflects: “After all, a girl and later a woman is taught not to become too familiar with her own strength, not to invest in it, not to identify herself by way of it. Of course I didn’t know what I could do” (p. 351). What do you think of this idea? Do most girls and women not know what they are fully capable of? How have you been taught how to, or taught not to, invest in your own strength?
16. J.B. and her sister, May, seem by turns close and distant, both similar and worlds apart. How do J.B. and May relate differently to their shared past? To motherhood? To family?
17. The Anniversary, and J.B.’s life, takes place across continents—England, Australia, New York, Japan, and even the unnamed country where her mother disappears. The book’s most pivotal event—Patrick’s death—happens on a moving cruise ship. How does geography, and physical movement through space, play a role in the story? How do the book’s multiple settings affect its tone and mood? How do they delineate chapters in J.B.’s life?
18. In one of the book’s more surreal scenes, J.B. is questioned by a Japanese investigator after Patrick’s disappearance and goes into detail about having sex with Patrick the afternoon of his fall, though it is unclear to both J.B. and the reader exactly how much she is saying out loud. What did you make of this moment? Why do you think Bishop chose to include it?
19. How does the Author’s Note that J.B. includes in her novel, and the ensuing conflict, encapsulate the central conflicts in Patrick and J.B.’s marriage? In J.B.’s life?
20. What is J.B.’s relationship to motherhood, especially as it relates to her ambition as an artist, and how does it change over the course of the novel? What did you think of these changes?
Suggestions for further reading:
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Monogamy by Sue Miller
Trust by Hernan Diaz