3 out of 4 stars
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Robert Browning is nursing painful wounds and feels sore all over. He got whacked on the head by baton-charging Royal Ulster Constabulary forces during the Derry civil rights march on October 5. It is 1968, just before the Mexico Olympics. Northern Ireland will share the international headlines with the games as the violent dispersal of the Derry march signaled the start of the Troubles.
(The Troubles were three decades of conflict between the nationalists who wanted a united Ireland and the loyalists who desired to stay under British rule. Northern Ireland, consisting of six of the nine counties in the province of Ulster, is part of the United Kingdom to this day. The Republic of Ireland occupies the rest of the island of Ireland.)
As the loyalists are generally Protestants and the nationalists are mostly Catholics, the conflict in Northern Ireland has a religious flavor: The Catholics and other sectors are experiencing discrimination. Robert is not overly concerned about political and national issues; he barely knows them. He is a teacher at St. Ignatius of Loyola, devoutly Catholic (at least, he thinks so), and still a virgin at 28. So why did he join the march? Well, Anna inveigled him. She is mesmerizing. He wants to capture her heart (her body will naturally follow), and he would do anything just to be with her. However, the beautiful Anna is not just an activist. She is also an expert in sexual matters, including unholy BDSM.
Will Robert follow his heart, even as his Catholic conscience perennially bothers him with visions of his soul burning in hell?
Anna by Derry-born Colm Herron is a romance novel, but it contains so much more than love scenes. Its myriad characters paint the picture of those turbulent times in Derry, Northern Ireland. We march with the protesters, defiant and courageous. We join the heated debates in various social gatherings like a wake, soirees in bars, and other meetings, formal or otherwise. We hear the chastising voices of the Catholic clergy. We eavesdrop on Robert’s confessions and endure his penance with him.
I knew close to nothing about the situation on the island. I had to get myself acquainted with the island’s history, enough to appreciate Herron’s story.
Herron mimics the writing style of James Joyce, one of the literary greats from Dublin. Anna is narrated by Robert. Robert uses the “stream of consciousness” method and mixes the present with his thoughts, songs, poems, jokes, prayers, and asides. These are many times inserted without the benefit of quotation marks or other indicators. As I was not familiar with some of the songs and whatnots referred to, I was lost many times. It didn’t help that the 493-page story was not divided into chapters. I have never read any of Joyce’s works, but if such is his style, I can understand the critics who find his works difficult to read.
The Irish brogue is also ubiquitous in the book, and some Irish terms escaped me. A glossary would be most welcome. Apart from the challenging Irish English, I also had to contend with several run-on sentences, misspelled words, and missing punctuation, commas in particular.
All the reading difficulties aside, I had an enriching experience with the book. It added depth to my knowledge of the green (representing Catholic and nationalist) and orange (representing Protestant and loyalist) issues in Ireland. Robert’s contemplation of the truths behind his Catholic indoctrination made me mull over my own faith, which is always a good thing if you ask me. There were many laugh-out-loud moments in the book as Herron happily played with words. I was also effortlessly brought to the period with the songs and public figures of the time. Marchers were singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests in the US and similar conflicts in Mexico, France, and other places were shown as mirroring the volatile situation in Northern Ireland. Of course, as this is a romance novel at its core, love was portrayed as the powerful force that it is.
I believe that fans of James Joyce will relish this book. I likewise recommend it to those familiar with or intrigued by Irish culture and history. Romantics are especially invited to dive in. Readers have to brace themselves for the profanity and erotic stuff, though. They also have to wrestle with the author’s style.
After careful consideration, I gave the book 3 out of 4 stars, deducting just one star for the errors and the reading hurdles. My trip to Northern Ireland of the late sixties was taxing, but it was a fascinating and enlightening journey. It would be hard to forget Anna. As the Irish say, “This is a goodun.”
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