Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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“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.

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Maria Edgeworth

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Maria Edgeworth by John Downman

Several years ago, while carrying out some research for an academic paper, I came across the following quotation from the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth:

“The blunders of men of all countries, except Ireland do not affix an indelible stigma upon individual or national character.  A free pardon is, and ought to be granted by every Englishman to the vernacular and literary errors of those who have the happiness to be born subjects of Great Britain.  What enviable privileges are annexed to the birth of an Englishman! and what a misfortune it is to be a native of Ireland!” [1]

I loved the quote. For me, it was a great, stinging blow to English ignorance, couched in the most sophisticated, savage irony. You’re judging the Irish before you’ve even met them, Edgeworth seems to suggest. You recognise that  Irish English is different. Therefore, you assume it’s inferior. What a misfortune indeed to be born Irish – her scorn cuts to the bone.

Edgeworth’s mockery seemed to resonate – there was something very modern about her satire, something almost rebellious in the way she, as a member of the Irish Ascendancy class, chose to refute the attitudes and prejudices of her peers. And in fact her Anglo-Irish heritage added another layer to Edgeworth’s fascination: she emerges as an outsider figure, born into a marginalised group within an already marginalised society. This is perhaps one of the reasons why her legacy is not celebrated in the way that, for example, we celebrate the legacies of Austen or the Brontes. And yet what she was doing in her literature was so radical that she influenced them and Walter Scott with whom she corresponded.

So I decided to read her first significant work, Castle Rackrent – a biting satire on the subject of absentee landlords and the depravities of the gentry in late eighteenth century Ireland. And while that might seem a subject well out of our frame of reference, the humour of her novel and the degree of psychological insight is anything but. The story is told from the perspective of Thady Quirk, servant to the Rackrent heirs, and loyal to a fault. While Thady’s masters prove to be a bunch of dissolute, mendacious, heartless bastards, Thady serves without question. And whether he turns a blind eye to their faults or really is such an innocent, we’re never quite certain. Yet his naivety throws into relief their sheer awfulness. It’s a carefully realised exercise in irony, and it has been suggested that Edgeworth was one of the first novelists to use the device of the unreliable narrator, a literary strategy subsequently employed by writers from Emily Bronte to Nabakov.  Her work was bold, experimental and infused with wry,  bitter humour which throws into relief the political and social disparities of her day.

Edgeworth went on to write essays, novels and children’s stories and yet seems a somewhat shadowy figure, hidden behind giants like Austen, the Brontes and Scott.  And so I think that Ireland’s national day is a great opportunity to celebrate one of a great literary nation’s lesser known literary heroes.

 

[1] Maria Edgeworth, Tales and Novels Volume 4 – Castle Rackrent; An Essay on Irish Bulls; An Essay on the Noble Science (Charleston S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2006), p. 90.