The very first line begins,
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to by breast …
and it made me feel I was in safe hands; a safe writer’s hands. She could’ve used the simple word, somebody, but the capital letters and the Mc told me where she was and also her attitude to this person, it could’ve been one of many people from the place she comes from. Guns are rife. Even if you hadn’t read the Booker Prize announcement or the publicity it generated, or the back of the book itself and discovered Anna Burns is from Northern Ireland and always writes about the Troubles you could work it out: the use of Mc tells you it’s either Scotland or Ireland but the prevalence of guns tells you it’s probably Northern Ireland given it’s history which any reader must remember.
When one uses an article in front of a noun it gives information about that noun; “a success” means something different from “the success”: the former means success in general, the success of anything; the latter means a particular success, the one we’re talking about. If there is no article the meaning is different again; it means the quality of success, success-ness. Anna Burns omits the article of the noun, brother-in-law; as in …
…there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, …
… which suggests there is such a thing as brother-in-law-ness. The insinuation is that she has a lot of experience with brother-in-law-ness since this one is just the first one. It’s like a job – all plumbers are the same type, just like all brother-in-laws. And she doesn’t like them.
No one is named, but they have names. She calls her mother ma, her name is ma; ma calls her middle daughter, she calls him maybe-boyfriend, and him, third brother-in-law, and her brothers, thingy, thingy, and thingy; she calls him, milkman. Not the milkman, just milkman; no article, so no name but with a name, milkman. Even though he has nothing to do with milk, not even its distribution, he has milkman-ness: he knows where everybody lives, especially daughters, and what they have for breakfast. Ah, but this is not to be confused with real milkman. This is a man of a rare kind.
The stream of consciousness can be daunting: each page is densely packed with words; direct speech, brief though it is, is imbedded in the paragraph, there is little page-space. It gives the impression of dense weight.
Yes, there is a narrative in the traditional sense. Let’s call this the plot. But the plot is sparse. The narrative is really inside her head; this young innocent girl trying to live a life in a war zone, but a war that isn’t an official war, but therefore it’s much more dangerous, because even the language is full of weapons, bullets, and grenades.
As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. There were television licence inspectors, census collectors, civilians working in non-civilian environments and public servants, all tolerated in one community whilst shot to death if putting a toe into the other community. There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.
The narrative inside her head, which the above quote gives you a taste of, is relentless – as thoughts are – and in the midst of all this danger – 80% of the book is this danger – there is the simple plot: a much older man, milkman, is stalking her, and even if she doesn’t reply and just stands there letting him talk, even with her arms folded, not engaging with him, wishing he would go away, she doesn’t like him – she likes maybe-boyfriend – but he won’t go away – and when he does go away it’s as secretly and silently as he arrived – but he’s there long enough for them to be seen together. That is enough for chins to wag and tongues to spit. They were seen together so she, daughter, must be having an affair with milkman, and it must be true because Mrs Someone and Mrs Thingymabob said. Even ma doesn’t believe her. What’s a girl to do?
Did I enjoy this novel? To start with, yes; but as it progressed it felt repetitive and over-written. The Man-Booker judges have, in recent years, favoured the experimental voice to the detriment, I believe, of story-telling and therefore of their readership. Although a stream-of-consciousness novel, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late won in 1994 the past four years have seen more experimental novels taking the prize. New writing doesn’t necessarily mean better writing.
Here is a very short video of Anna Burns after winning the Man-Booker and talking briefly about the writing of her novel. She seems overwhelmed by the media attention, which given its intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.
You can buy the kindle version here.