Anna is a dystopian novel, set a few short years from now. War has devastated us to the point of societal collapse. It’s a lawless, bleak and wretched place out there, but our protagonist has managed to survive it, picking her way through the Unlands and trying where possible to avoid the remnants of humanity. Her capture happens with shocking speed, and we are dragged along with her into a living nightmare of enslavement, degradation and manipulation in a cold and bitter world.
Reading a book is an act of empathic communion, crawling into the head and the heart of the protagonist to see what the world looks like from their point of view. Anna was written by an author who works closely with real-world victims of abuse, so many of whom are demeaned, disparaged, and brushed under the carpet. Such voices deserve to be heard. The filter of fiction makes it easier to bear perhaps, but not by much. ‘Anna’ is fundamentally reshaped by her trauma and as we see, once she finally escapes, the impact of that experience colours every step of her life ahead as she attempts to reclaim and redefine her sense of self (and self-worth).
It is to the author’s credit that she’s able to convey the depths and breadth of this abuse without slipping into exploitation. Voyeurs will find nothing here. There’s a dissociation built in early on which feels very real, locking us into the mind rather than the body of ‘Anna’. I’m not usually a fan of first-person narratives, but that liminal space – that mindscape – is a critical bond that we share (to a degree) with the protagonist. It is the only part of her being that her captor cannot reach, and as such, is precious beyond bounds. It protects us from him, just as much as it protects her essential being. Nevertheless, I found this a harrowing and a difficult read.
Post-apocalyptic fiction allows writers to probe beneath the veneer of civilisation to the psychology of the human animal beneath. It also allows them to imagine different ways in which we might rebuild society, given the mixed blessings of an event that wipes away the old world. Smith offers us a couple of alternatives in Anna, but little in the way of *improvements. For now, this is still very much a man’s world, shaped by forces both brutal and subtle, and the women in it need to be…careful.
The way the first settlement is set up is nakedly misogynistic, a veritable hell for womankind. It is stark, filthy, and purposefully cruel. The second settlement is a subtler prison, modelled more closely on the here-and-now, though shorn of the structures of State; it’s an attempt by its residents to remake the world as it was, or to reclaim some semblance of it at least. If the first settlement represents the dominance of the ‘alpha’ male and the squalid fantasy of **incels – full of outraged entitlement – the second (seemingly gentler place) models the dominance of socially conservative people – puritanical, hypocritical, vindictive, and swift to remove anyone or anything that is different.
How ‘Anna’ copes with this shift – how she finds a home, fits in, and then later, pushes back against the strictures to find herself once more – forms the greater part of the book, yet we are perpetually haunted by the past. It is an unusual choice to make, throwing us in the deep end where all the drama is, then swimming us out slowly; it’s the very opposite to how most stories work, but then…Anna isn’t most books. It isn’t trying to be.
This is about what happens after. It’s about the process of recovery and, given the times we live in, that’s not a bad thing to contemplate.
Anna isn’t my cup of tea, but it is a powerful piece of literature – painful, and psychologically true to a degree I have rarely encountered before. Whilst the experience left me feeling pretty bruised, I think it was worth it.
Reading experience: 4/5
* If she has thoughts in that direction, perhaps we’ll see them together in the sequel.
** Male readers may find themselves getting a little defensive at the notion that we would leap at the opportunity to enslave women. The words ‘Not All Men’ may even creep into their mind. Get rid of such thoughts and just read the damned book. Then maybe go look up the stats on rape and domestic abuse.
If you are affected by domestic abuse, Refuge are there to help you. You can visit their website for information and advice, or call them on 0808 2000 247.