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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Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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I like kind of drifting into and across books. Sometimes finding a new author is like being involved in a massive paper chase, in which one good read leads to the next. The reason, for example, why I picked up (or rather downloaded) Daisy Johnson’s novel Everything Under was because it was recommended by Fiona Mosley, whose novel Elmet I greatly enjoyed. And I read Elmet due to a fascination with the concept of the Celtic/English hinterland of Elmet presented by Nicola Griffith in her work of historical fiction, Hild.

Indeed, there are a lot of points of comparison or overlap between Everything Under and Elmet. Both stories concern people who live on the peripheries of society. Both explore the relationship between gender and identity. And both use myths, history or legend as a base point for exploring contemporary British culture. Thus, the myth of Oedipus leaks into the lives of Johnson’s characters, steering them inexorably towards tragedy.

Gretel is a lexicographer, whose lonely existence is shored up by a fascination with language and semantics. She embarks on a journey in search of her mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel when she was just thirteen years old. But it now emerges that Sarah is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her fading grip on language means a loss of the past itself; her story delivered up in half-remembered fragments.

Through this confused web of time and memory, Gretel gradually pieces together the story of how the almost idyll of her childhood – spent amongst the ‘river people,’ drifting physically and metaphorically along the fringes of society – was splintered and destroyed by the arrival of a boy named Marcus. And of how Marcus may in fact have once been a girl – Margot.

There are so many strands to this complex and disturbing narrative that one reading doesn’t do the book justice. Johnson reveals the way in which we become trapped or ensnared by language or stories in so many different ways. Both Gretel and Sarah are haunted, for example, by the idea of the Bonak – a water creature hunting the river banks. Yet the border between genuine danger and self-imposed fear is a fluid one, and the Bonak turns out to be a term coined by Sarah herself, as she and Gretel share a private language.

In a sense, language in Everything Under takes on the role of fate in Oedipus Rex. It condemns people to relive the same, inescapable narratives; unable to veer course from self-imposed systems of semantics and association. “Again and again,” says Gretel, “I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.” Only with the disintegration of language, ultimately, can release from the past be found.

Everything Under has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a novel which reads like a river, meandering, free flowing, and at times sucking the reader into dangerous and disturbing depths. And ultimately, it reminds us of why myths like Oedipus still carry resonance in our fractured, fragmented times. Highly recommended.