Book Review — My Name is Rebecca (Sam Burnside)
by Hollie ENNIS
28 July 2022
My Name is Rebecca, although fictional in nature, likely depicts the real thoughts, feelings, and experiences of many in Northern Ireland. The author, Sam Burnside, centres the narrative around the character, Rebecca Porter, and her journey of coming to terms with her trauma and grief following the death of her twin sister, Ruth, who was killed by an IRA bomb in 1983. Set in the early ’00s, in a newly peaceful, post-agreement Northern Ireland, the novel follows Rebecca and her close friends James and Robert on their journey of self-reflection and grief. The following points emerge as key components and standout themes within the narrative.
Trauma and PTSD
“It is as if I exist in the black reality of a cavernous vault, a wondrously expansive vacancy that is without bottom or sides or covering. It is so huge it can accommodate and lose all that my mind might imagine…”
As obvious as it seems, it is clear that trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) emerge as key aspects of the book — specifically, dealing with the trauma of a Troubles-related death. The book adopts a multi-layered perspective of trauma from an individual and group perspective. Further, it explores the impacts of such perspectives which are conveyed through the characters of Rebecca, Robert, and James.
Burnside presents an honest and unfiltered image of the experience of trauma and PTSD, conveying how it can manifest itself in time and place and differs depending on the individual’s experience. The book displays, most notably through Rebecca, how consuming and impactful trauma and PTSD are — not unbeatable and although they will never completely disappear, their effects can be managed through the will of the individual.
The book conveys different approaches that individuals take in dealing with trauma and PTSD. Rebecca struggles to mediate its effects, which result in the past overshadowing her contemporary and future. Robert expresses his grief and sense of loss for his friend, yet feels its effects have lessened as time passes. James, however, is stated to adopt a “clinical, detached, watchful attitude”.
Throughout the novel, there are frequent references to this group of friends not vocalising their feelings and experiences of trauma and grief: “We’re good on the surface facts of feeling, not good at sharing our real feelings or acknowledging their existence.” This is a highlighted issue throughout the narrative, which ultimately has destructive consequences for the group dynamic.
Guilt is woven into the narrative on the issue of trauma and PTSD, with the feeling of guilt enhancing the level of trauma and PTSD that Rebecca feels. “Her mother blamed her for taking her sister into town that fateful day … deep down she blamed herself but nothing was ever said in private or in public.”
Change and its impacts are reflected in a variety of ways throughout the novel. Firstly, the book is set in a time of significant economic, societal, and most importantly political change in Northern Ireland. The period of 2005/2006 in which the narrative is set reflects this change, most notably through the 2005 Westminster elections, which saw the DUP and Sinn Fein emerge as the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties, overtaking the UUP and SDLP. Two of the more hardline parties overtook the two traditional ones, which seven years earlier had brokered the peace. The anxiety and anger surrounding the political change are reflected through the character of Robert, who expresses his concerns that Ruth and other victims of the violence will be conveniently swept aside in the name of change: “Ruth’s death will no longer be a tragedy but will become an embarrassment, at this time when lots of people will want to engage in collective amnesia.”
The dilemma of moving on and allowing change to occur while still attempting to remember and honour the lost individual is also addressed throughout the novel. The tension is conveyed through Rebecca’s reluctance to move on, due to the fear that embracing change and living in the present will mean letting go of her sister: “On one level I can understand the need for us to move on. It’s just that Ruth cannot move on.” The dilemma of the past overshadowing the future, creating a fog in which the individual becomes stagnant and cannot navigate their way out, features as a main takeaway from the novel.
The topic of forgiveness is another obvious key theme when the novel centres on a Troubles-related death. Inherently linked to the previous topic of change, the narrative presents the dilemma of whether forgiveness is a necessary part of transition and whether it should be expected of individuals to allow society to move on from conflict. However, through the experience of Rebecca, the novel suggests that forgiveness is in fact a very individual-centred concept, and therefore prompts the question as a society: should we really expect individuals to forgive? — “You know, for years I watched people on television, relatives of victims standing there before the camera with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘I forgive them’ or ‘ I have no feelings of hatred for them’… do you realise how that made me feel… me, who felt unforgiving?”
It also presents a second thought-provoking dilemma — whether individuals can forgive on behalf of others. Such is explored through Rebecca, who expresses her reluctance to forgive as she feels her sister never gave her permission to forgive on her behalf; therefore she does not have the right to forgive the bomber: “Ruth never gave me permission to speak on her behalf, to seek vengeance or bestow forgiveness.”
Memory vs remembrance
Throughout the novel, Rebecca questions the meaning behind the terms memory and remembrance, asking herself whether there is a difference between the two and if so, what are the implications of this? She concludes on this topic, “I suppose memory and remembrance are two very different things.” Such a statement appears powerful within the context of this novel and the key issues it addresses, as this review has outlined. Perhaps if one adopts a different meaning to memory and remembrance, then it will aid them in their journey of grief as it eventually did to Rebecca.
Although this novel is fictional, the themes which can be drawn out of it are very much real and unfortunately may be the reality for many individuals who have lost or suffered as a result of the Troubles. Northern Ireland may have left the epidemic of political violence behind, yet as this novel displays, an epidemic of mental health issues exists within our post-conflict present. A report from the Commission for Victims and Survivors states that 61% of adults in Northern Ireland have experienced trauma in their lifetime, with levels of PTSD in Northern Ireland the highest of all countries that have produced comparable estimates, including the USA, other western European countries, and countries that have experienced civil conflict in their recent history. Further statistics from researchers at the University of Ulster have shown rates of mental illness and suicide are the highest in the UK and Ireland, with rates on average 25% higher than in England. The legacy of violence and socio-economic factors are cited as the major contributors to such shocking statistics.
It is clear that individuals within our society are still suffering from the violence of the past, as My Name is Rebecca highlights, yet measures to address such issues remain under prioritised. Although commitments have been made for increased funding and a strategy to address mental health from the Department of Health, without the formation of an executive, such key issues remain held ransom to the politics of this place.