ANNA by Sammy H.K. Smith
Trigger Warnings: Abuse, rape, domestic abuse.
I’m old enough to remember when the Jordaches arrived in Brookside Close, including Anna Friel in her first TV role as eldest daughter Beth. Brookside – the innovative pub-less soap opera that gave us the first gay kiss and the first lesbian kiss also gave us the first domestic violence story line in a UK Soap.
The reality of coercive and controlling men has been replayed in other soaps since, most recently with the largely psychological abuse and gaslighting that Jeff levelled at Yasmeen in Coronation Street. However, the grim reality of men victimising women sadly pervades societies of the past, present – and in Sammy H.K. Smith’s debut novel Anna – future.
Anna is a story divided into three distinct parts. The structure brings reader and character towards some narrative closure although Smith does well to keep a perilous sense of uncertainty simmering right up towards the end. An anxiety for the reader that mirrors the perpetual insecurity of women trapped or haunted by abuse.
Some well documented examples of true crimes of abduction, imprisonment and abuse are remarkable for the extraordinary tales of survival and endurance of the aftermath that they reveal. For example, the memoirs of Natascha Kampush in Austria and Sabine Dardenne in Belgium. Fictional accounts such as Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones, or Emma Donoghue’s Room also illuminate this dark side of humanity without descending into either gratuitous details, crude simplicity or gifting their protagonists with some kind of heroic armour of the abused.
In our discussions within the Hive team we have often commented unhappily on the way rape can be used almost as a trope in fantasy stories. It becomes some motivating factor for either a female protagonist as victim or her male companion seeking revenge. However, societies are in a constant state of flux – we are (mostly) growing up as people and learning to reject words, deeds and representations that were considered, say, “all right in the seventies.” Even the early noughties films do not bear up too well to contemporary standards – for example the stalking and fat shaming aspects in “Love Actually.” In that vein, I like to think the idea of “rape as plot coupon” is being consigned to the obsolescence it has long deserved. Which is not to say that authors should no longer attempt to depict such issues, fiction must after all reflect society warts and all, but that the fiction should do proper justice to the reality of that trauma.
Which brings me back to Sammy H K Smith’s debut. The cover pulls no punches, we know our first person protagonist is to be beaten and branded, and the author has put out trigger warnings for themes of rape and abuse. To be honest I didn’t read the blurb and I’m glad I hadn’t because even those few sentences betray spoilers that might lessen the numbing impact of the story’s twists and turns. Like another great post-apocalyptic novel M.R.Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts the less you know before you start the better your experience of the novel. So I will try to avoid any further spoilers.
It is a post-apocalyptic setting, the world has been convulsed by war and bombs and civil disorder have cumbered all the parts of little England.
Civilisation, if you can call it that, is concentrated in a few self-governing towns with the “Unlands” in between a lawless wasteland where our protagonist has spent three years eking out a safe but isolated existence. But that comes to an abrupt end in the book’s opening pages when she is captured by a man who has spent three days unnoticed in his stalking of her while he chose his moment to pounce. Unlike the real life examples of Kampusch or Dardenne, or even Ma in Room, there are no police looking for her, no safety to flee to. In the anarchy of a collapsed civilisation, might is right and the ethics of what passes for local government are little more advanced than the robber barons of the tumultuous civil war between Stephen and Matilda. Indeed, there is an almost medieval serfdom to the acceptance that some people can be owned and branded as property by other people. So Anna becomes a possession. The man, known as Will or Daniel, holds the respect of his peers for his competence, his ruthlessness and his skill set well matched to the what the world has become.
However, he has other attributes too, for even in an apocalypse Smith powerfully demonstrates that rape and abuse are not about sex or love, they are the exercise of power and control and Will/Daniel is as much a master of psychological manipulation as of physical violence. In a story which – by its very nature – is harrowing, Smith keeps the reader’s attention firmly on Anna’s struggle. The first part of the book is a study in constant paralysing peril, with Anna taunted by the possibility that she may have missed chances to escape, while gripped by a shame she does not deserve to feel for ways her mind and even her body have betrayed her. Anna is not left entirely without friends, but in a world of brute and brutish power no one is brave enough or strong enough to make alliances with another man’s property.
The second part has a shift of tone and context as Anna earns herself a reprieve and we chart the development of a different community. In the 1970s I used to watch a TV series called Survivors about fragments of humanity trying to rebuild civilisation after a plague has killed 98% of the population. (I have seen the more recent remake, but the original was better.) In Smith’s story we get a similar exploration of efforts at social and political reconstruction with communities trying to build and interconnect. There are even parish council style meetings, less overtly fractious but more deadly in discussions than any you might have seen on Zoom. But again, Smith’s focus is on the protagonist struggling to trust, to share or to interact in the aftermath of her trauma. She is viewed with sometimes impatient sympathy by those who would like to be her friend and yet would have little idea of how to help her deal with her past, even if she dared to tell them of it. However, even as this village life settles into the mundane details of making the world anew one brick and one book at a time, Smith surprises us and Anna with a twist I had not anticipated.
Which takes us into the final part and Anna’s struggle to escape the past, not just with Will/Daniel but in the failures of her pre-apocalyptic life where so much security, comfort and time had been taken for granted.
This is not a light or comic read, but it is a well written story. Smith examines the cycle of abuse and the isolation the victims experience even when they are in company. Lines like
“You make me so angry, Anna.” He was apologetic again, and tenderly grabbed my face with both hands. “I just want to protect you, to take care of you.”
Tenderly grabbed – the essential non sequitur of domestic abuse.
“Hello.” It came out like a whisper, my voice bruised with the injury of crying and tired from little use.
I held the plan in my mind, covering it with hope and holding it tightly.
And when Will/Daniel tries to demonstrate the power of his love, or the love of his power
My skin itched and was clogged with the very essence of him. I didn’t like this attempt at a conscientious lover.
I found shades of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the post-apocalyptic setting, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the sexual enslavement of Anna. My only complaint would be about the depiction of post-apocalypse economics. Years after any notion of central government or co-ordination has collapsed, the scavengers from Anna’s community can still find untouched supermarkets to bring back supplies of food, including eggs, while the petrol to run a small number of cars is somehow readily available. In the film 28 Days Later there is a point where one character has to justify the fruit still fresh and unrotted on the supermarket shelves 28 days after the country has, literally, gone raging insane. The script writers then must have felt obliged to insert a throwaway line about irradiated fruit as a means of preservation. With Anna I have a similar disquiet about some implausible aspects of the imagined afterworld.
However, this is not a book about the apocalypse. It is a book about one woman’s experience of – and her emergence from – extreme abuse and trauma. The fact that it happens to take place in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic setting is significant in that most of the levers to obtain freedom have been destroyed. For example, Anna’s encounter with the doctor that Will/Daniel takes her to – for the purpose of checking she is free of “disease” – is anything but the potential route to sanctuary one might expect in our contemporary society. Anna is in so many ways alone.
Smith has managed to craft a credible protagonist – whose actions are always in keeping with the dilemmas she faces. Furthermore the tension lingers right up to the very end of the story and it is not just Anna who the reader ends up fearing for.