“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.
Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.
What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.
The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.
I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.
I arrived at this novel by a vagarious route. I recently finished Hild by Nicola Griffith in which the last Celtic kingdom of Elmet is a central motif. To my shame I had never heard of Elmet, even though I lived for about two years in Yorkshire (Elmet was located over roughly what would later become the West Riding.) After reading Hild I began to realise just how politically complex 7th century England was. The term Anglo-Saxon is conceptually inaccurate as it implies a dominant, monolithic culture when in fact Angles and Saxons were already fragmented and warring groups. In this context, the idea of a residual Celtic Kingdom in the north of England appears less of an anomaly and more a kind of proof of just how porous British identity always has been.
Anyway, I found the idea of Elmet a fascinating one, and I happened to be at an airport bookshop when I saw Fiona Mozley’s book, read that it had been shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize and immediately went and downloaded it. What I love about this novel is the fact that it plays on that original idea of Elmet as a kind of badlands: a world away from the norms, a place where ancient values and beliefs still frame the way people live and think. Yet at the same time, Mozley repositions that idea in a more recent context: in a Yorkshire scarred by the destruction of mining communities and on the cusp of entering a new, unforgiving reality of hard capitalism and privatisation.
The novel foregrounds a pocket of resistance to such change in the form of Daddy (John Smythe), a prize fighter who brings up his children Kathy and Daniel in the middle of a forest, schooling them in self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Daddy makes his money through violence – through boxing in illegal fights – while going at any length to protect his family against the threats which encroach upon their little world.
The fascination of this story is not what is said but what is left unsaid. Its impact lies in its ambiguity: in the frayed edges around the tale which Daniel, its narrator, weaves. It gives the novel a mythic, lyrical feel which contributes to the sense of this being a kind of latter day legend, just as Elmet itself became the subject of myth making.
It’s a novel which is at once rooted in a keen sense of geography and history but which at the same time transcends time and space. Mozley’s prose rings with innovation and with imagery which throws into relief the wild, stark, beautiful world which Daniel inhabits. It’s a story of survival and of loss, of the clash of value systems, and of our sense of how the past invades the present. Elmet is also violent territory, and the fact that this violence is muted in Daniel’s narration makes it all the more shocking. Abuse and conflict, the book suggests, are as much a part of our cultural inheritance as the land and traditions which Daddy is so desperate to hand onto his children. This is a book which you carry with you long after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.