Patrick Radden Keefe, whose best seller Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (which I also could not recommend more highly) won this year’s Orwell Prize for political writing, praised Anna Burns’s experimental novel as “[a] trancelike evocation of tension and predation during the Troubles.”
Burns presents 1970s Northern Ireland as if viewed through gauze, a world of vagaries bordering on the opaque.
Exhibit A: People and places don’t have proper names, they have descriptors.
In the former instance, the eighteen-year-old narrator herself has no name (she’s middle sister), but she does have a car-parts-hoarding maybe-boyfriend and three wee sisters – to balance out her three older ones – and a lecherous first brother-in-law and a running-obsessed third brother-in-law and a longest friend who informs middle sister of her status as a local beyond-the-pale, mostly – but not entirely – because middle sister has a habit of reading-while-walking, which strikes the local populace as, well, beyond the pale.
Joining her in that category are nuclear boy, who suicides over his dread of Cold War mutually assured destruction, and tablets girl, who randomly and routinely poisons various locals, including middle sister.
Places, on the other hand, are largely defined by the ever-present ‘political problems.’ In the big picture there’s ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’ – presumably England vs. the Republic of Ireland. Locally the divide is ‘this side of the road’ and ‘that side of the road’ – presumably Catholics vs. Protestants.
And through it all runs a narrative voice that curls and corkscrews and ultimately collapses in on itself.
[In] a district that thrived on suspicion, supposition and imprecision, where everything was so back-to-front it was impossible to tell a story properly, or not tell it but just remain quiet, nothing could be said here or not said but it was turned into gospel.
The prose Burns crafts is as complex, convoluted, and claustrophobic as the environment her characters inhabit.
And then there are the paramilitaries who dominate that environment: on one side the defenders-of-the-state, on the other the renouncers-of-the-state.
(Oh yeah – almost forgot: There’s also ‘the usual place,’ where dead renouncers are laid to rest.)
And then there’s Milkman, a presumed high-octane paramilitary renouncer who’s stalking/courting middle sister who resists/shuts down emotionally even as her lecherous first brother-in-law launches rumors of an affair between Milkman and middle sister which doesn’t exist but regardless blooms into gossip that circulates and recirculates and eventually resolves into the aforementioned gospel.
In the end I will 1) leave you to discover the rest, and 2) leave you with this: Milkman is the most stunning piece of fiction I’ve read in many a year.
And middle sister – funny, ironic, self-aware, self-disparaging, self-despairing, self-defeating – is a narrator altogether strange and haunting, sort of a Belfast Ishmael.
You really should read this book.