Anna is a story about domestic abuse and rape, and so it deserves the trigger warnings at the start of the book. Be warned, this is not a book for the faint-hearted.
From the very beginning, Anna, not her real name, but the one she assumes, is subjected to horrific violence from a man who claims to love her. Will chains her, beats her so severely she can’t open her eyes, then brands her, carving something on her back. As book openings go, this was a challenging read. The violence continues throughout the first part of the book, as Will attempts to control Anna and force her to love him. When Anna is ‘good’, he is gentle, but he is swift to punish when she is defiant.
I have to acknowledge Smith’s courage in tackling such difficult subject matter, and she does so sensitively, not shying away from the brutality and cruelty women and men in abusive relationships face. Other people talk about Will as if he is the most amazing man in the world and ignore Anna’s injuries. At the same time, Anna lives in terror of his attention. She is beaten for not smiling at the right time or saying the right thing, but only in private.
The violence only lasts for the first part of the book until Anna escapes Will and finds shelter in a community. Although she is no longer beaten, she is still scarred from her experiences, struggling to fit in or trust other people. She is constantly pressured to conform, go to social events, find a man, and I really felt for Anna. She has escaped from a life-threatening situation and needed to recover, but well-meaning couples keep interfering, trying to force information from her or for her to go on dates. Her friend Nikki is particularly irritating in this respect. She ignores the verbal and non-verbal communications from Anna. She prattles on about a man called Peter as if having a husband was the only goal in life.
I can imagine that being free of their abuser does not mean their lives are suddenly perfect for domestic abuse survivors. Outside interference from people who want to help but cannot understand what the survivor has been through because they haven’t experienced it for themselves can do more harm than good. This second section, on the surface, appears to be very different from the first, filled with committees to rebuild society in their post-apocalyptic world, social gatherings, and relearning to trust. Yet, within the context of domestic abuse, it is a significant part of the survivor’s recovery as they learn who they are without the threat of violence hanging over them.
I will not give away too much from the final part except that Anna has not run far enough away from Will. His reintroduction into her life is as sinister and conflicting as it should be to do justice to those who live in daily fear of this happening to them.
Yet despite the honesty of the subject matter’s handling, there were issues with the book that stopped me from thoroughly engaging. Throughout the story, references are made about a war. Anna’s husband was conscripted to fight in this war and she never saw him again. This is a crucial event that has changed everyone’s life, but we aren’t told anything about the war until very late in the story, where a character mentions the Asia-Pacific war. We know bombs were dropped, but not what type. I have to assume not nuclear as radiation does not appear to be an issue.
We also aren’t given enough information about what happened after the war to understand why Will’s behaviour is considered acceptable. When she is captured, Anna is aware that there are men who do this to woman. There are two settlements where the inhabitants know what is happening to Anna but don’t care or tell her she’s lucky to have Will caring for her. However, without the necessary background about why life has degraded this far, I had too many questions that prevented me from really getting on board. I understand Smith may not have wanted to dilute her message about the horrors of domestic abuse. However, it felt like too much background was missed to make space for passages of extreme violence.
Another issue I had was the lack of foreshadowing. Anna periodically thinks of her lost husband Stephen and only occasionally of her parents. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, Anna reveals that she had been having an affair pre-war, and her parents were the reason she was found out. There is no build-up to this. No guilt or regret, just matter-of-fact statements that this has happened, and she no longer blames her mother for letting it slip. Any poignancy that section might have had is lost because it is so out of the blue. The fact that she very rarely mentions her other life prevented me from feeling anything in the moment.
Anna is an exceptionally brave book, not glamorising or sensationalising the violence and rape of domestic abuse, but not quite fleshing out the world enough for me to really stay hooked.
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming