With her problematic first novel, Ana Imagined, Perrin Ireland asks the proverbial Edwin Starr question, "War, what is it good for?" Unlike Starr who, oxymoronically, finds it is good for absolutely nothing, Ireland finds it an excellent setting for a novel.
Ana Imagined takes place in Sarajevo, and the war is the Bosnian conflict. Ana is an average, middle-class woman, who happens to be stuck in the middle of a civil war. Ana's mother is Muslim and her father a Catholic Croatian. At first, life could be that of any small European or American city, with the exception of some occasional pesky bombing in the background. Ana and her family are intellectuals, poets, playwrights. Muhamed, her son, is as precocious as they come.
The strength of this novel lies in the vivid normalcy of these people's lives, lives which are slowly overwhelmed by worsening conflict. It is easy for one to picture an American life with little difference. At first they rise to the challenges, losing power, scrounging for firewood, avoiding snipers as they join food and water lines. The squeeze increases; they can no longer pretend to be who they were. They become survivors. War comes home.
Surviving replaces other forms of routine: "She never left the apartment on weekends, when Serb mercenaries were free from their other jobs and came from surrounding hills to shoot at women and children." And, "She walked by the office used by the mujahideen, where she and Emir had taken cover one day when the shelling had been particularly bad, the way they used to pop into a store during thunderstorms."
The horror is in the details: no water, soap, shampoo; people dying of starvation and bullets. Muhamed develops diabetes, and insulin becomes increasingly hard to get as the black market dries up. Sometimes Ireland is a little heavy-handed and cryptic, when she doesn't trust her prose to make a point and throws in, among other things, preposterous plot twists and Bible-like references to the writings of Anne Frank (another Anne -- get it?). War causes an insane, no-rules desperation which Ireland captures beautifully.
Where Ireland missteps is with regard to her parallel story, the autobiographical tale of Anne, a woman in Cambridge struggling to publish a novel about, lo and behold, the war in Bosnia. Through Anne, Perrin attempts a study in contrast: Anne a woman who struggles to express herself in a man's world, and Ana, a woman who struggles to survive the war. In fact, Ana is Anne's literary construct, a connection that adds nothing to the book.
Much is made of the gender politics inherent in both situations. But Anne's story seems bitter and trivial compared to the ravages of war, and the juxtaposition seems derived from a creative writing class exercise rather than from the heart.
It is hoped that, with this book, Ireland has exorcised her self-serving demons and can rely upon her descriptive strengths and expressive talents in future writings. She describes war as if she's lived it, and it is this type of writing, rather than overwhelming but distancing news footage and photography, that really can illustrate the feeling of injustice. With some focus, Ireland could be a very powerful writer.
-- Michael Salkind