I’d read a lot about this book before picking it up myself – that it was too obscure, too literary (since when has that become a bad thing?!?), so I was a little dubious before starting. I flicked through the first page before getting my hands on the whole book, and was instantly hooked. The voice was so resolutely Northern Irish that I was beside myself to get at it.
Set in 1970s Belfast, this is a story about living through the Troubles – but they are a backdrop, rather than taking centre stage. The atmosphere is claustrophobic from the outset– the neighbours’ nosiness is clear when the narrator states “Intense nosiness about everybody had always existed in the area. Gossip washed in, washed out, came, went, moved on to the next target.” However, it’s not just the locals that spy on one another – the government forces are at it too and the constant presence of the camera shutters clicking from bushes is introduced from the very beginning, adding to a heightened sense of imprisonment – our 18 year old narrator is trapped in a community that allows few insiders (something that becomes very evident when the guest speaker at the local feminist group is forbidden from visiting due to paramilitary death threats).
The aura of violence hangs heavy throughout, thanks to the sinister presence of the milkman, who is terrifying in his subtle threats to the narrator, notably when he threatens the life of her ‘maybe-boyfriend’. Lives are at threat for the smallest of things: “although there were superchargers, there were also kangaroo courts and collusion and disloyalty and informership.”
The encounter in the ten-minute place is particularly disturbing– the world of the narrator has been shrunk to such a point as to warrant being described by how long it will take to get to the safety of home. There’s a real bleakness with the bombs and dead cats – of course the Milkman turns up here.
There’s a casualness to the horror, such as when her father blithely admits that he was raped as a child to his young daughters, or when a sixteen year old boy loses half his head in an explosion. Or indeed, when she has a gun held to her chest in a pub toilet. Like everything, violence has to be defined, it has to have a place in the ‘Troubles’ or the locals are unable to cope, which is why the narrator stands out – she is a character who refuses to be defined by the place she lives, which is why defining this book as being ‘about the Troubles’ seems to miss the very point Anna Burns is making – yes the conflict permeated society, but that doesn’t mean the world needs to be defined by it – sometimes Burns presents this permeation as so ridiculous as to be satirical.
The fact that there are no names in the book has been describing as a ‘confusing’ technique. However, in a society where everything about you is decided by the name you wear, this struck me as a genius way of hammering home the point that the events of this novel, whilst surreal and abstract and threatened by horror, are touched by the same themes many lives are touched by – love, a sense of personal journey etc. These events could happen on EITHER side of the peace wall. Even the naming of babies is influenced by the local community – there’s a safe list and Nigel and Jason are forbidden.
If pushed, I would describe the main theme of this as the insidiousness of misogyny. “As far as the groupie woman was concerned then, what represented true attainment for her was the prized position of becoming the woman of the man.” Women are content to be playthings of powerful men, seduced by status as they can attain none of their own and the protagonist is in some ways a victim of this mindset – a non-conformist. The third brother-in-law is seen as weird because he views women in a more positive light than the other male characters – but even then, he loves to argue in a certain way, so this isn’t a wholly wholesome outlook.
It’s also funny – the comedy of the narrator slipping on porn at the beginning, or the surreal idea of her carrying a cat’s decapitated head around with her. The three wee sisters are also delightful in their craziness, as is mother’s obsession with getting married, even though it’s brought the other daughters nothing but trouble – in the mother’s eyes, the worst thing about being attached to the Milkman is the fact she’s not married to him! The very dry narrative voice adds to the humour. “’Hold on a minute,’ I said. ‘Are you say it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?’ ’Semtex isn’t unusual. It’s not not to be expected…It fits in – more than your dangerous reading-while-walking fits in.” is humour at its blackest and although exchanges such as this aren’t very frequent, they occur enough to lift the narrative.
The farce of the idea that the security forces and paramilitary forces would miss everyone by minutes every Friday night is funny – the tablets-girl is seen as more of a threat – perhaps again because it is not not to be expected.
There is also some beauty: the scene between third brother and tablets- girl’s sister is farcical but funny and despite the horror of watching her maybe-boyfriend in a tryst with his friend, there’s a touching element here too. The scene in the night school as she is learning French was one of my favourites – the idea that the adults were unable to comprehend anything beautiful was very poignant “Was it a safe something or a threatening something?”
I absolutely loved it. Read it in an afternoon and intend to re-read it soon – it feels like one of those books that give something new every time you read it. A very worthy winner of all the accolades.