Milkman by Anna Burns

I think this is an absolutely amazing novel but one that I may well have not read. It was only because it was a daily deal on Audible that I thought, why not? And it has blown me away (read by a wonderful narrator: Brid Brennan). I credit Brennan with bringing Burns’s unique and inventive and charming and funny and dark and unexpected voice to life. Milkman hangs on the point of view of Burn’s first person 18-year-old unnamed narrator – we can call her middle sister because all the characters are named in their relation to others. Even the Milkman of the title is called that because people don’t know his identity – he is just high up in the paramilitary, unforthcoming, dangerous and threatening to our narrator.

The world of middle sister is narrowly confined in the segregated unnamed city. Everyone’s lives are circumscribed by the sectarian splits, and the oppression of the forces from ‘the place over the water’. The fact none of this is spelt out, or even explained – it’s just the ‘political situation’ – reinforces a sense that people just get on with it. For our narrator, it is her accepted world, she just has to learn how to navigate it, how to survive. Almost every family in her ‘area’ has had members killed, every family has sons who join the ‘renouncers’, any innocent action like going to a (state) hospital, or talking to the wrong person, might get you named an informer and summary justice meted out. Much black humour is had at one place when middle sister’s ‘maybe-boyfriend’, who works as a mechanic, gets a much-coveted part of an abandoned Bentley. The fact the car had a flag (from the place over the water) on it made it suspect, and there is much debate about whether the male interest in cars should trump solidarity around hatred of the oppressors.

Writer Anna Burns presented with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2018

For something that could be bleak – the narrator is stalked by Milkman who has taken an interest in her and she knows that, in the long-run, she would probably be powerless against him (the rumour mill has it that she is having an affair with him although, in fact, she is terrified of him) – it is really, entertaining, amusing, with flights of linguistic brilliance (Joyce, Beckett, is not a far-fetched comparison). This is not cold pyrotechnics, though: it’s humane, insightful, with acts of kindness and compassion, as well as violence. Who would have thought you could go into the world of the troubles and find it so interesting, absorbing, humorous. Much of this is to do with middle-sister’s way of looking at it: she’s an odd-person out, on the cusp of what her society calls ‘beyond the pale’ – she’s rouses suspicion for her ‘reading while walking’, for her propensity to stay silent, to withdraw – but that’s what great narrators have to be, they have to see things from the outside, from the inside. This is just a great piece of literature – a worthy recipient of the Booker prize. No precis can convey how brilliant this book is, you just have to read it.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Charlie is a bit of a no-hoper living in a reimagined London in the 80s. he inhabits a rundown one bedroom flat and plays the stock market on his beat-up computer and makes enough to get by. His love interest is Miranda, a history student, who lives in the flat above. Although it’s the 80s in McEwan’s alternate history, Alan Turing had not committed suicide, so computing technology is far-advanced – the result of this is that a private company (Elon Musk-esque) has developed advanced AI androids. They have just put on the market a trial group of 12 females (Eves) and 13 males (Adams). Charlie gets an inheritance from his mother and, on impulse. Buys an Adam (all the Eves are sold out).

So far, this is perhaps your average SF/spec fic scenario, but McEwan isn’t interested in going there. This novel is not for thrills; it is a philosophical examination of what it means to be human with all McEwan’s trade mark humour, stylistic and structural pyrotechnics, and impressive erudition. Most writers would baulk at depicting Turing discussing AI but McEwan goes right in there with convincing detail and bravura. McEwan grounds the story in complications between Adam, Charlie and Miranda. There are twists and twists and twists – nothing about the narrative is straightforward and tired ideas about android/robot/human interaction are turned on their heads.

This novel made me think about things and challenged my assumptions – it’s a rare thing when a piece of literature makes you look at something anew, from an angle I hadn’t encountered before, and he achieves this through the framework of a very enjoyable and entertaining read. Maybe, if I had to critical, I’d say McEwan can’t help but be a little too clever, and conceited about it.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I started reading this long book by Richard Powers and found the beginning a little tiring (over-detailed, slow). It starts with a pioneering family in the US and the (odd) obsession by one of them with documenting the growth from seed of a chestnut tree (at this time a chestnut blight was systematically wiping out whole ancient forests). Then we abruptly leave this story and move on to another one of a Chinese man immigrating to the US taking with him an ancient scroll. This is how the novel develops, moving from one story to the next, starting with the background of characters, and then following their families. They all, in one way or another, have a connection to trees – although this is sometimes tangential. I don’t know if I would have persisted with The Overstory if I hadn’t decided to listen to the audiobook, rather than read the paper one. I just relaxed back and took in this big, wide-ranging, detailed book with its huge cast of characters. I’m not sure how many main storylines we follow; maybe nine?

Some are more compelling than others. I liked Patricia, a deaf, taciturn and withdrawn plant expert who goes against the conventional wisdom and does research into tree communication (of course, now it is accepted that trees communicate, help and protect each other; even those of different species). I also liked Douglas, an ex-military dropout loner who sees the light in middle age when he encounters clear felling and the practice of the logging companies of leaving a façade of trees along roads, and at the edge of logging coups, to fool the public. He does his bit by joining a regreening work gang replanting seedlings for a logger, until he finds out that by doing this, the company gets a licence to log even more. There is also an Indian quadriplegic programmer who gets rich inventing a game called Mastery, where you start with a virgin planet and develop and civilise it (it takes him a long time to see the implications of this and try to make amends).

As the narrative progresses, some of the characters meet, come together, and protest logging. Peaceful protest is met by force and our small group decide to take more active measures. The consequences of this are far ranging and provide the main narrative thrust of the novel but this is not a linear narrative and Powers is not about to provide any easy answers. I had the feeling often about this book that it was about to end – some profound point had been made, some realisation of a main character’s – but it went on, often switching between storylines at these moments. I won’t spoil the end, but it is in keeping.

My defences were worn down by the narrative; it was relentless, and beautifully and powerfully written, with a cynicism of humanity that I agree with wholeheartedly. I was stuck with the characters, I had to go with them and when it finished, I had that sensation that something deeply satisfying had left me. The ending makes you think about the whole and I realised Powers was doing something interesting with the structure (hint the sections are titled Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds). The various sections start out with ‘roots’ – the family history or background of the characters, then they grow independently branching out. I like to think that the little revelations, or narrative stops, I noticed, were the ends of the twigs growing out from the branch. In the end, you just have to step back, take in the whole, and accept it for what it is. Whether you are convinced by the ‘seeds’, I’ll leave up to you.

I think this book is a pretty staggering achievement (apart from everything else, it is highly erudite on a wide range of topics). It reminded me of Middlemarch where Eliot developed the same sense of community and loose interconnectedness, and I felt the same sadness at having to move from that novel as I did with The Overstory.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a little gem of a book (152 pages) – hard and bright. Silvie is an adolescent girl who goes with her father and mother on an experiential archaeology week in the Northumberland countryside – her father has a lay interest in iron age English culture and somehow has tagged along on a university field trip with a professor and three students. The novel is prefaced by a description of the human sacrifice of a young woman, one of the bog people whose bodies are preserved and whose fates have been much speculated about. This scene hangs like an eerie tension over the narrative.

Silvie is a great character; at once knowing and competent (her father has taught her survivalist skills since she was a little girl), and sheltered and innocent. She is bewildered by the students, especially Molly, the only other female (except for Silvie’s cowed mother). Molly’s nail polish, her humour and cynicism (she goes off to a shop nearby to secretly buy food when they are supposed to be living off berries and leaves, fish and rabbits). The killing of the rabbits, and graphic skinning and gutting of them, is something that Silvie is used to, although she’s sad for the things that were running around only the day before, while Molly is disgusted and refuses to eat them. Silvie’s father is scornful and full of derision at such soft modern sensitivities.

Although we see the story from Silvie’s point of view, the case against the father is built up slowly and circumstantially. She can see that he knows as much as the professor, in his own way, and that, living as iron age people, he is the one who would lead. Even the professor starts to rely on him, and they spend days apart while Silvie and the others are relegated to foraging or cleaning up camp.

This novel is at once a fantastically detailed portrayal of living in, and off, nature and a psychological study of repression and complicity. We all know where it is heading but I couldn’t work out how Moss was going to get us there. But she does, shockingly and convincingly.

Skylarking – Kate Mildenhall

Mildenhall’s novel has some lovely descriptive writing of life in a small lighthouse-keeper community on the NSW south coast in the 1880s. Two teenagers, Kate and Harriet, are close friends enjoying a lot of freedom running around picnicking and playing dares at the cliff’s edge. This idyllic time is threatened when the girls’ nascent sexuality emerges and Harriet, in particular, wants romance, and we assume marriage. Kate is more of a free spirit. McPhail, a man in his thirties, arrives on the cape as a fisherman. Despite being an unlikely object for Harriet’s interest, she is aware of her sexual power over him and toys with encouraging him. This complication draws Kate in, and a tragedy plays out. The novel is based on a true story and I think this constrained the writer so that the motivations are sometimes unclear. The ending is extended way too long, lessening the impact of what is already a fairly low-key narrative.

Black Inc have given the novel a beautiful evocative cover.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

If you have read “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (see my review), the plot of Sally Vickers novel is surprisingly similar, so much so that I felt this book was a literary tribute to the former novel. Both are set in the ’50s, both have a youngish woman as a heroine who loves books (one starts a bookshop in a small English town, the other takes up a position of children’s librarian in a similar town). Things initially go well for both: the bookshop is set up and becomes a small success and, in the other story, the heroine (Sylvia Blackwell) makes changes to the library to bring the magic of books to the children of the town. Both women, by perhaps not understanding the narrow-mindedness of such towns, fall out of favour, and are cut down. Both books are peppered with nostalgic references to books loved, and books that might be recommended. I felt that Vickers’ heroine had the same rather distanced, naive, but also perceptive voice, of Fitzgerald’s heroine, Florence Green. However, while I found Fitzgerald’s book both annoying and frustrating, Vickers gives us more of a satisfying story, with Sylvia putting up more of a fight than Florence was able to muster. Fitzgerald packs Florence off into an uncertain future (all the more bleak because Florence is in her forties, not her twenties like Sylvia, and so we assume it would be harder for her to start over). While Sylvia, too, moves on, Vickers provides a coda in the last section of “The Librarian” where we move into the future and see the effect of Sylvia’s influence on some of the children she encouraged. Both books are more hard-edged and less sentimental than a you might expect from their titles and plot-lines.

Goodreads review

The odd case of The Bookshop

2018 film tie-in cover

I was drawn to buy Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Bookshop’, because of the arresting image on the cover of actress Emily Mortimer as the novel’s heroine, Florence Green. Mortimer is dark, attractive, bookish, brooding, in stylish retro orange shirt and striped skirt standing outside a quaint small-town bookshop (which, let’s face it, every lover of books has once or twice fantasised about owning). The novel was published in 1978 but is set in 1959 Britain, in the small East Anglian town of Hardborough. The novel has been reissued a number of times, most notably in 1997 where it was reviewed favourably in the New York Times.

If I thought the novel was going to be actually about opening a bookshop, I was sorely disappointed. If I thought it was going to be about a strong, independent woman standing up to sexist forces against her, I would also be wrong. Why it has now been chosen as material for a film, is also perplexing to me. What does it have to say to audiences in 2018? If the crowd of women of, shall we say, a certain age at my local cinema is any indication, it is presented as one of those quirky films about starting over in a picturesque place somewhere like rural France, Tuscany, a Greek island etc. etc. meeting resistance, and finally being accepted. Casting Bill Nye as the curmudgeonly recluse who warms to Florence, suggests the filmmaker intended to move the film in this direction, but I think she was trying to be faithful to the source material, so this felt false and was, quite frankly, excruciating.

2003 cover

So back to the novel. I found this short novel (156 pages) to be extremely frustrating, continually subverting expectations. It was nominated for the Booker prize in 1978 (Fitzgerald won it the following year for ‘Offshore’), surprising for such a weird, inconsistent and improbable tale. Many critics view it as a comedy of manners but I think this misses the mark – there are certainly comedy-of-manners aspects to it, the society party thrown by Violet Gamart where Florence is subtly belittled, is one, as is the bizarre tea party between Florence and Mr Brundish (Bill Nye’s character) – but the tone veers wildly from comedy to realism to satire, even to the supernatural, so that the reader is pretty much always at sea.

Speaking of sea, I find it quite interesting that the covers for the earlier editions depicted scenes of nature at the seaside (the film, also has Florence often sitting on the wintery beach when, really, she should have been running her bookshop!) In the book she only goes once or twice, but these scenes are very brief and she is certainly not a communing with nature, again the reader/viewer wants Florence to be something that Fitzgerald is just not going to let us have.

No character in ‘The Bookshop’ is without flaws, even Florence herself. The most venal is Violet Gamart, who, on a whim, wants the building that Florence has bought and partially renovated, for her own pet project of an arts centre. Florence stands her ground but then seems to forget she has created an enemy. Raven, who is a nature man, gets the sea scouts he leads to help Florence through putting up shelves and painting, yet he also sets up an eleven-year-old paid assistant for her resulting in Florence falling foul of labour laws (Florence has previously worked in a big bookshop where she met

1978 cover

her late husband so she should have known better). We also meet Miles North, a BBC type, who spends his time in a cottage with his girlfriend avoiding actually doing any work. Miles is weak, is emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, and a sycophant to Violet, yet Florence inexplicable befriends him, and even, when she loses Christine her underage assistant, agrees to employ him part time (Why would someone who works for the BBC want to work for Florence, especially as we know he is a lazy sod? Why would Florence employ him when we know, at this stage, she is in financial difficulties? Why would any bookshop owner in her right mind order 250 copies of ‘Lolita’ to sell in a small town? Why would a bank manager lend Florence the money to purchase the premises when everyone in town knows it is riddled with damp?) There are many improbabilities that pile up to conspire against Florence. She meanwhile contents herself with writing silly letters to her lawyer and being duped by everyone. Mr Brundish in a fairly ineffectual way tries to warn Florence but she remains oblivious. He takes it upon himself to confront Violet – the only positive act in the novel to help Florence – but in a final stroke to frustrate and annoy the reader, this comes to nothing.

The final sentence, I suppose reveals Fitzgerald’s cynical and satirical intent: ‘As the train drew out from the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for ten years had not wanted a bookshop.’ No, Florence, wrong. You are not a heroine, not a fighter for a greater purpose, you are the victim of the malice of one privileged person and your own passivity and misplaced trust. You are a fool who acted on a whim, and didn’t have the sense or fortitude to carry it through. It is quite clear that the town did want a bookshop, as initially the shop did well. Florence made some bad decisions on the stock, the people she employed, and the condition of the building. If anything, this is a cautionary tale of capitalism: it’s dog eat dog and you have to be tough to survive. That’s why we all dream of owning a bookshop, and leave the actual running of them to people who know books are a commodity. Poor Florence.

The Good People – Hannah Kent

I finally ‘read’ Hannah Kent’s novel ‘Burial Rites’ in audio book form. I had avoided novel, really, because of all the hype around it: somehow it came across as a genre-type book because it was based on a gruesome murder, with domestic violence undertones. What Kent did, in fact, write was a wonderfully controlled novel about a particular closed and tight-knit society – 19th century Iceland – in which the ‘truth’ about the murder is slowly revealed as we get to know the thoughtful and sensitive heroine as she is housed with a family awaiting her execution. The novel was based on a real story that Kent came across in her research.

One of the most amazing things about ‘Burial Rites’ was Kent’s ability to absolutely recreate the everyday life of rural Iceland, capturing the small rhythms of the day and year, and the quiet, subtle interrelations of the characters.

The quite staggering thing about ‘The Good People’ is that Kent has done the exact same thing but this time set in Ireland in 1825. The novel is set in a rural valley, where except for going to the nearest market town to sell their butter and eggs, the people live out the grind on their small landholdings – but of course, they don’t own the land but rent it. It is a limited life in the extreme, but Kent takes us there, and it feels utterly convincing. She has the gift of recreating a tiny, closed-in world, in all the interest of its detail, that is as alien to us today, as if she’d set it on another planet.

Our main characters are Nora, who is widowed in the first chapter, Nance Roach who is the local ‘cunning woman’, someone who deals in cures and charms, and Mary, a fourteen year old who is hired out as a seasonal worker and who comes to help Nora with her severely disabled small grandson. This might be Ireland in 1825 but medieval superstition, especially belief in the Good People – the fairies – still exists. While the local, hard-nosed priest, preaches against the superstition, pretty much everyone in the valley believes in the Good People, avoids places where they might gather, like the Piper’s Grave, and go to Nance to get their ailments cured. It is Kent’s intent to get inside this society, and to let us see their lives and actions through their eyes.

The tragedy of the novel is centred on the grandson, Michael. His mother died when he was two and his father dumps him on Nora and leaves. While Nora’s husband, Martin, dies a few pages in (suspiciously clutching his chest, and at the cross roads), we get the feeling that if he had lived they could have cared for Michael together, but grieving after his death, the difficulty of the disability starts to crush Nora, and the child’s mannerisms and the change in his appearance, makes her happy to eventually accept the rumour that he is a changeling – a fairy child left in the place of her real grandson.

As in ‘Burial Rites’, Kent takes a baffling crime and creates a plausible story around it. Here, she has to convince us that the three women she has portrayed as essentially good, could do something, that, on the face of it, is fairly evil. I don’t know if she is entirely successful but, as with, ‘Burial Rites’, I empathised with the ‘criminals’. Nance Roach, in particular, is a finely-drawn character, but it was the details of life in early 19th century Ireland that fascinated me – the earth floor of the ‘cabins’, goats and chickens in the houses, bare feet, even in the snow, the ‘breakfast potato’, (in fact the diet seems to consist only of milk from their one cow, eggs from the chickens and potatoes from their potato bed). There is also mention of the itinerant poor who are accused of nicking the necks of people’s cows and drinking their blood for sustenance.

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

I haven’t read Egan’s award-winning ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ (2010) but ‘The Keep’ (2006) appears to be a precursor re her interest in metafiction, the use of intertextual devices etc. The ‘hero’ here is Danny, a New York dude who arrives in an unnamed Eastern European town because a childhood friend, Howard, sent him a free airfare and he had to get out of New York for crossing some underworld types. Danny strikes out at night to find the castle that Howard is renovating, intending to turn it into a hotel. There is no light, strange undergrowth and an impenetrable wall. Danny is dragging a portable satellite dish with him because he can’t stand to be out of touch with his NY friends. Funny how this plot device is redundant now, just ten years later, such is the perils of the speed of modern technology for writers.

While the smart-talking Danny could have been irritating, he is actually quite funny, and because he’s self-deprecating we forgive him his cynicism. He does get into the castle and find Howard (who after descending to drug-addiction etc. after a childhood trauma has made a motza out of bond trading) who is a sort of Steve Jobs figure to a horde of back-packer volunteers who are doing the renovation for him. There is also a tough-guy offsider called Mick who Danny recognises as a ‘number two’ figure to the great man, because Danny, too, has played the ‘number two’ role to some ‘number one’ men as well.

Things start to get decidedly stranger from here. There is a weird pool in the castle grounds where Danny sees strange shapes move beneath the water. There is also a keep where an ancient baroness (My family have lived here for generations and you can’t get rid of me – we saw off the Tartars and we’ll see off you etc.) is holed up.

Meanwhile we meet another character, Ray, who is doing time for murder and undertaking a writing course in gaol run by Holly. Ray finds he is good at writing and it provides him with the release from his predicament he craves (his cell-mate gets his release by listening to messages from a ‘radio’ he’s made out of a cardboard box). It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ray is actually writing the story about Danny and the castle. His fellow prisoners in the writing class ask newbie questions like: ‘Did this happen to you Ray?’, ‘You’re Danny aren’t you?’, ‘I don’t believe you could make this seem so real if it didn’t happen to you’ etc. As well as writing, Ray is falling for the teacher, Holly.

As the story progresses we find out that Danny has played a part in the childhood trauma suffered by Howard, and he (Danny) begins to suspect that Howard has brought him to the castle to wreak some form of revenge. Danny experiences a number of mishaps that may or may not be affecting his mind – with a supreme effort he manages to escape to the nearby town. Waiting around he buys an antique map of the castle, and when he can’t get out of the town and goes back to the castle, Howard thinks he’s a hero for finding the map that shows some ‘missing links’, i.e. tunnels that thread beneath the castle. These tunnels play a part in the denouement which neatly connects Danny, Ray, Howard and Mick.

Egan runs a fine line, messing with the readers’ sense of suspended disbelief, but it is so much fun, and Danny turns out to be such an endearing character, that she gets away with it.

Two hybrid novels

A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson

‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ is a hybrid novel – part dystopian thriller, part crime novel. Ex-journalist Stevie is working as a presenter on a TV shopping channel in London when an epidemic of illness strikes, peoa lovely wayple call it ‘the sweats’. Like a flu outbreak, no one thinks much of it until people start dying, quickly. Stevie is initially oblivious and waits in a bar for her new boyfriend to turn up, when he doesn’t she goes to his flat and finds him dead. Maybe its natural causes but she succumbs herself to the sweats before she think much about it. When she recovers (one of the few, it transpires, who do) she finds a letter to her from her boyfriend, a successful paediatrician, asking her to deliver a laptop to another doctor at the hospital where he worked, and to trust no one. As she tries to carry out this request, she has to navigate a London slowly shutting down as more and more people die. To make matters worse, it looks like someone is prepared to bash her, or worse, to get their hands on the laptop.

Stevie does all the normal things a crime character has to, interview people, follow up leads, outwit the masked man following her, piece together the puzzle that goes deep into clinical trials and corporate greed, amid a populous getting more and more desperate. I liked the way that the pandemic starts slowly and societal structures work for a while, and some people (including Stevie) try to carry on as normal for as long as possible. The detail is all there: choked hospitals, eerily quiet roads as people are instructed to stay home, outbreaks of vigilantism and random violence. Stevie is tough but aware of her own vulnerabilities, and the brief relationship she has with a computer hacker who helps her is a welcome respite against the horrors all around.

The hybrid nature of ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ reminded me of another novel I’ve read recently: Jane Rawson’s ‘From the Wreck’. This is an amalgam of Australia historical fiction (it is set in SA in the 1860s) and science fiction. You might think ‘steampunk’ but the novel is a far cry from that. It is really a thoughtful exploration of loneliness and being ‘other’. The novel centres around George, a steward on a ship that is wrecked off the coast of South Australia. While theFrom-the-Wreck_cover survivors are slowly dying of starvation, a strange woman appears among them – she may or may not be Bridget Ledwith, one of the passengers. George and this woman are the only survivors but the woman disappears soon after they are rescued.

George is forever after affected by the strange things that happened to him on the wreck. Meanwhile a sea-dwelling being from another world has seized upon him as their first contact with a human. The creature is desperately alone: ‘They are gone home and I am here and I am a million years too late’. To stay near George, the being fuses with George’s son Henry who develops a precocious interest in arcane (mostly natural history) knowledge. Another character Beatrice Gallwey, hard-drinking and tough, moves next door and we think she may be worthy foil for our extra-terrestrial. The interaction, and self-interest, of these four characters plays out to an ending that was, for me, unresolved. Rawson set herself a massive task to get these strands to work together; I enjoyed the parts: the other-worldliness of the creature, Rawson’s depiction of the rambunctious George who is alternately self-assured and terrified, her lovely portrait of young Henry who is at once enhanced and used by the creature, and the self-contained and cold Bea who pleases herself (below the radar) in a conventional society. Mixing these strands together didn’t quite work for me but it was interesting to go along with the ride wondering where this strange story was heading to next.