by Anna Burns (2018)
Faber & Faber (2018)
368 pp

Winner — rightfully so — of the 2018 Man Booker Prize!

But it was a game — more toy soldiers on toy battlefields, more toy trains in the attic, hard men in their teens, hard men in their twenties, hard men in their thirties, in their forties, with the mentality being toys even if it was far from toys these men were playing with.

The standout novel on this year’s Man Booker list, Anna Burns’ wonderful Milkman begins:

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.

The voice of this novel is wonderfully distinctive — Lisa McInerney meets Javier Marías — a type of first-person stream of consciousness except it isn’t really, as the story is being narrated after the event and the narrator’s thoughts are highly reflective and circular.

Milkman is also set in a specific but not explicitly specified time and place, Republican Belfast in the late 1970s, but written in a way that gives it wider applicability to any closed groups in divided societies.

The narrator’s (now deceased) Da never could remember the names of her and her several siblings:

As for the names of us offspring, never could he remember them, not without running through a chronological list in his head. While doing this, he’d include his sons’ names even if searching for the name of a daughter. And vice versa. Sooner or later, by running through, he’d hit on the correct one at last. Even that though, became too much and so, after a bit, he dropped the mental catalogue, opting instead for ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ which was easier. And he was right. It was easier which was how the rest of us came to substitute ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and so on ourselves.

Except the narrator extends this to extremes. Not only are her family members referred to as, for example, third brother-in-law and the wee sisters, but the other characters in the community (the family dog I think the one exception) are given similar functional designations. Inter alia the cast features Milkman (who isn’t actually a milkman); real milkman (who is); almost-boyfriend; tablets girl, a.k.a. the district poisoner; tablets girl’s disconcerting shiny sister; nuclear boy; Somebody McSomebody; and the preachy issue women and the pious women of the nieghbourhood (who become the ex-pious women when the district’s most eligible bachelor becomes available).

It is a wonderfully effective technique, true (if highly exaggerated) to the way people are often referred to in close communities and, in passing, makes life a lot easier for the reader as well (who actually needs to know or cares about a character’s given name?).

It also gives for some memorable characters, for example, Mr and Mrs International, almost-boyfriend’s parents, who simply walked out on their young family to pursue their career in world-class ballroom dancing, leaving a note saying:

‘Sorry kids. Seeing things in right relation we should never have had children. We’re just off dancing forever. Sorry again — but at least now you’re grown up.’

After this, there was an afterthought: ‘Well, those of you who aren’t grown up can be brought up and finished by those of you who are — and look, please have everything — including the house.’

And the narrator’s precocious and analytical wee sisters:

After that, if ma still wasn’t back by wee sisters’ bedtime, I’d read them some Hardy for they were well into their Hardy phase. Before that it had been their Kafka phase followed by their Conrad phase which was absurd given none of them had reached ten.

She did return, but not till after dark, by which time wee sisters were in bed, lulled to sleep by Rice Krispies, Tayto Crisps, Paris Buns, bread-in-the-pan, halibut orange tablets with extra sugar on everything. Then there was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which was their choice of matter.

She also extends this technique to descriptions of place — the local area consists of the usual place, the reservoirs and the parks, the ten minute area etc. (Over at Goodreads, MisterHobgoblin’s excellent review (here) maps these to real places in Belfast.

And to the description of the trouble’s themselves, the area caught between loyalty to the country “over the water” and the country “over the border.”

At this time, in this place, when it came to the political problems, which included bombs and guns and death and maiming, ordinary people said ‘their side did it’ or ‘our side did it’, or ‘their religion did it’ or ‘our religion did it’ or ‘they did it’ or ‘we did it’, when what was really meant was ‘defenders-of-the-state did it’ or ‘renouncers-of-the-state did it’ or ‘the state did it’.

In such a divided community, everything is politicized.

The need to declare one’s affiliation absolutely even extends to the choice of Christian names, which perhaps also links to the narrator’s refusal to use them in her story:

The names not allowed were not allowed for the reason they were too much of the country ‘over the water’, with it no matter that some of those names hadn’t originated in that country but instead had been appropriated and put to use by the people of that land. The banned names were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoinments and resisted impositions as laid down long ago in this country by that country, with the original nationality of the name now not in the running at all. The banned names were: Nigel, Jason, Jasper, Lance, Percival, Wilbur, Wilfred, Peregrine, Norman, Alf, Reginald, Cedric, Ernest, George, Harvey, Arnold, Wilberine, Tristram, Clive, Eustace, Auberon, Felix, Peverill, Winston, Godfrey, Hector, with Hubert, a cousin of Hector, also not allowed. Nor was Lambert or Lawrence or Howard or the other Laurence or Lionel or Randolph because Randolph was like Cyril which was like Lamont which was like Meredith, Harold, Algernon and Beverley.

The list continues for almost another page, but one suspects the choice of Nigel (first name of the self-proclaimed architect of Brexit and Piers Morgan’s rival for best British friend of Trump) as first on the list was not accidental on the author’s behalf.

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side.

Even hospital is out of bounds to her community given that it is seen as under the control of the state:

‘She’s fine, out and about’ was the communal prognosis upon her, also the communal euphemism for ‘mended though broken’, itself another euphemism for ‘in urgent need of medical care and attention’, all of which the person in need unfortunately was not going to attend hospital to get.

But perhaps the novel’s key message is how this extends to the pressure to conform, particularly for women. The narrator is damming of the boy-with-toys self-importance of renouncers (see the opening quote). Renouncing the state soon extends to renouncing any aberrant behavior deemed “beyond the pale”:

There was also that day-to-day business of dirty laundry in public, and of the district renouncers laying down their law, their prescripts, their ordinances plus punishments for any perceived infringements of them. There were beatings, brandings, tar and featherings, disappearances, black-eyed, multi-bruised people walking about with missing digits who most certainly had those digits only the day before. There were too, the impromptu courts held in the district’s hutments, also in other disused buildings and houses specially friendly to the renouncers.

And for the narrator herself, before she gets allegedly involved with Milkman, a leading renouncer himself, she is already beyond-the-pale due to the grievous sin of reading while walking:

Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book. This would be a nineteenth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century.

‘It’s not as if, friend,’ she said, ‘this were a case of a person glancing at some newspaper as they’re walking along to get the latest headlines or something. It’s the way you do it — reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea beside you, essays being penned — your discourses, your lucubrations. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusional. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why — with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together — would anyone want to call attention to themselves here?’ 

‘Hold on a minute,’ I said. ‘Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?’

As the story opens, the narrator suffers from jamais vu, a refusal to confront the reality of her trouble and contradictory situation, but the events of the novel force her to take stock, realizing that even her reading-while-walking was form of escape from reality:

‘What do you mean my jamais vu?’ I asked. Then I asked, ‘What do you mean another bout of jamais vu? Are you saying I have jamais vu and that frequently I have it?’ which was when it came out that, similar to the way in which I would block as unfamiliar from my memory all my periodic attempts to establish a proper relationship between me and maybe-boyfriend, instead thinking each time to be the first time at furthering on our intimacy, here too, according to friend, I’d experience illusions of never having been stopped previously by the state security forces when it was obvious I was stopped by them, she maintained, all the time.

Impossible then, with all these irreconcilables, to account, not just politically-correctly, but even sensibly for oneself. Hence, the dichotomy, the cauterising, the jamais vu, the blanking-out, the reading-while-walking — even my consideration of whether to forgo the current codex altogether for the safety of the scroll and papyrus of earlier centuries.

Overall a wonderful novel. Extremely funny, absorbing to read, with important messages, and ever-so-slightly-bonkers. But as the narrator concludes:

All this made sense within the context of our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.

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