Since 1969, the six counties of Northern Ireland, and the city of Belfast in particular, have been embroiled in a murderous conflict that flares up and dies down periodically but that amounts, in the scale and intensity of its violence, to a state of sectarian civil war.
The tortuous origins of the conflict lie centuries back in the history of relations between Ireland and England, which perhaps explains why it is sometimes not even clear who the principal antagonists now are: Catholics and Protestants? The IRA and the British Army? Irish republicans and the British government? Unstable combinations of these? Probably the only real certainty for the time being in Ulster is deadlock.
"How long must we endure this, though?" asks Rosaleen in Linda Anderson's bleak first novel, "We Can't All Be Heroes, You Know." "As long as it takes," comes the reply.
The entire action takes place in the thick of miserable everyday life in a dreary Catholic area of Belfast, all "broken pavements, foul puddles, ice, mud, poor crumbling houses." The year is 1979. The main characters, on both sides, are mired in a bewilderment so profound that it becomes at times self-hatred. To Gerry, an ordinary British soldier on a tour of duty in Belfast, the city is a "suffocating" place. "None of the beautifully mapped history made sense now that he was here." But the conflict makes no more sense to the disaffected young Catholic housewife, Rosaleen, for whom "there was nothing to choose between armies."
This is not to say that, in a novel whose very structure is that of debate, we don't hear voices offering wider explanations. Yet the effect of the book's structure, moving back and forth sympathetically between individuals on both sides, is invariably to make ideology sound like platitude. There is little respect here for "the bitter and cherished mythologies of Ireland."
But Linda Anderson does have a lot of respect for people -- not the leaders, officers, politicians or martyrs, but for the ordinary, frightened, bereaved and overwhelmed populace whose loyalty to one side or the other is instinctive, an accident of circumstance rather than a matter of choice. "This face, this race, this place, is that my doom?"
It is interesting, though, that she finds her ordinary people strictly among the local Catholics and the occupying British troops; there is a kind of hiatus in the novel where the majority native Protestant population should be. Whether Linda Anderson considers them disqualified by privilege or whether she simply shares the IRA view that the real antagonist is now the British Army, Ulster Protestants are not live contributors to this debate.
Everyone else is represented. We may not be given to understand whys and wherefores, but we undoubtedly begin to understand what it feels like to be part of such a conflict. Rosaleen's husband, Dan, is a young Catholic medical student, as disillusioned with the Church as his wife is, but less distrustful of the Irish Republican Army. We watch their marriage foundering.
The Provos (IRA Provisionals) themselves are a mixed bag, one or two brutal, most of them coarse and boastful, but at least one decent. The British soldiers match their enemies to a man in violence and vulgarity but are unable to comprehend their certainty or courage. "Any long slow process always aroused doubts and regrets in Gerry , even the wooing of a girl or the reading of a book. So how could those men not wonder in the middle of doing someone in? Why were they not moved by the man's cries? What made them so certain? It was awesome."
Of the British, Gerry is portrayed as coming closest to decency, precisely in his capacity for doubt and regret. He has a brief affair with Rosaleen, then deserts from the army and leaves Northern Ireland for good.
The novel provides no solutions to the problems of Ulster. Indeed, it seems to draw a silent analogy between the physically caged quality of life in Belfast and a kind of mental and spiritual suffocation. Early on, Gerry wonders "how people could endure that level of fear." Not until the end does Rosaleen spell out the answer implicit from the start, "We can't all be heroes, you know! Most people live here by going dead inside. By taking up drink or sports."
Yet Linda Anderson is also honest enough to ask why, despite all the viciousness, the general population continues to support the IRA? The novel offers only the most general and circumspect of answers, by following Dan's reluctant path from disengagement to a decision to throw in his lot with the IRA. Along with Gerry's desertion, this action provides one of the very few moments of individual courage and hope in the whole book.
Linda Anderson's spare, bitter prose is well-attuned to her grim subject. Although one may find much of the novel too cerebral, "We Can't All Be Heroes, You Know" still gives us a vivid and disturbing glimpse of "the whole ruined landscape" that is Belfast today.