“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.”
THE prose is wonderfully joyful and rambling. The Guardian refers to this winner of last year’s Man Booker prize as experimental but that does it a disservice. The madness is Belfast as much as that of our heroine narrator’s predicament. Even the more brutal events are dealt with lashings of humanity and dark humour.
Burns writes about something that matters, Belfast circa late 1970s, the troubles, her troubles, The Troubles, even trouble himself, aka the milkman of the title, even Milkman, but not the real milkman, whom no one loves. Never mind borders, it is a novel in the grand Irish tradition. I have seen Burns writing likened to that of James Joyce and I would not argue. Brian O’Nolan also comes to mind. This is individual and distinct. Although fiction, a true record, one suspects of a town which is still dismantling itself. A town “where everything was so back-to-front… nothing could get said here or not said but it was turned into gospel.” And so you double and triple realities.
Everyone is anonymous as if wearing masks or balaclavas so we have SomebodyMcSomebody, the wee sisters, the third brother in law, the maybe-boyfriend, nuclear boy, tablet girl, ma herself, the wonderful ma who almost manifests herself as if from another era, a throwback to intractable, stone-set, pious beliefs, always at cross purposes with her daughter, a manifestation of chaos. Anonymous in name perhaps but not in personality. Everyone is married to the insane violence of the time. At one point she, our narrator and author, is being spoken to and “and here he said my name, my first name, forename”. You feel the intrusion, the outrage.
Places too have no names, they are just – over there, over the road, over the water, the ghostly 10 minute area, the parks & reservoirs – notice the ampersand – the district’s most popular drinking club etc All of which serves to focus on our narrator’s increasingly encroached upon head space. “It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors.”
And it is all very prescient; the first page still reverberates through the story. It is in the now of events, at its hub a teenage girl emerging into a closed town divided by sex, religion, politics, even by cats and dogs, seemingly anything at all, a world in which different invisible opinions and rumours count where all she wants is to get away on Tuesday night to see maybe-boyfriend. A world patrolled by much hated peacekeepers, paramilitaries, of surveillance cameras that click, helicopters that hover, of women with better things to do…
Burns writes in a compelling style, repeating herself, like she is looking for a musical riff or chorus. Sentences roll: “depressions, da had had them: big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions….” And then straight away afterwards, the sly drama of: “Ma herself did not get depressions, didn’t either, tolerate depressions…”
There is humour in the set ups – the dismantling of the prized sports car, the women discussing their slice of toast on the bus, the fearsome molls in the toilet at the club, the couple who abandon their children to follow their dream to become ball room dancers… neighbours appear at the door at the drop of something happening…and as to the nuns and saint Teresa de Avila, there is a background here because you may need to know the story
Part of its charm is its complexity. There are few books that can manage to have a wooden chair by way of finale. Everyone has a side story, one of their own, a half truth perhaps, which allows for depth and width, 3d in the storytelling. Plus there is the literary slant: she is known as the girl-who-reads-while-walking. Not the done thing. Her taste is for old fiction, as escape, but the wonderfully precocious wee sisters demand she read to them from the more modern Thomas Hardy.
The Booker chair judge Kwame Anthony Appiah gave it perhaps the worst of endorsements: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard”. That might well be applied to a few recent winners, but not this, it is a totally brilliant book – not as popular maybe as some of the other contenders, both Sally Rooney and Michael Ondatje, as I wrote back in the summer, might been happy winners but did not make the shortlist – but it is fake news to overlook the genius here. This is a stand out novel.
Topically speaking, everyone discussing the so called Irish BackStop these days could do worse than sit down quietly for a couple of days to read this before arriving at any conclusions of their own, thank you very much. One argument for Europe was that it helped put a stop to such things, and not just, for sure, in Northern Ireland. Anna herself, I notice, now lives in west Sussex. No wonder.