Man Booker Review #1 – “Milkman” by Anna Burns

With just a few days to go now until the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, my goal to read all six titles by the 16th is not going well! In fact, it’s my worst performance in several years; I have only just started on my third title. Milkman took me some time to read. It is quite long, but it is also written in a way that I found it nearly impossible to read at my usual pace. The lyrical prose style that means you have to read nearly every word in order to feel the full impact. The same is true of the second book I read, The Long Take by Robin Robertson, which is in fact an extended poem, although it is somewhat shorter. I’m now on Everything Under, also quite short, but I’m not really enjoying it so finding it quite hard going.

Milkman imgMilkman is set in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the central character and narrator is a young Catholic woman who finds herself drawn unwillingly into a relationship with a local paramilitary leader. It is not clear when the book is set, but I am guessing around the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Northern Ireland is known to be socially conservative, but the general sense of the place of women in society suggests to me that it dates back quite some time. Our central character (not named, I’ll come onto this) is from a large family. Her father is dead and she has several siblings, both older and younger. She is in a “maybe-relationship” with a local young man, who she has been seeing for about a year, though they have not made a commitment to one another. She is keen on running as a hobby and shares this with “third brother-in-law”. Whilst out running one day in a local park she finds that she is observed by a man in a white van. Over subsequent weeks he infiltrates her life by stealth, indicating that he expects her to have a relationship with him. He is known only as “Milkman”. It becomes clear to her that he is quite a powerful local figure in the paramilitary world, so not only does she have little choice about whether to become involved with him or not, it is made quite clear to her that as long as she goes along with him no harm will come to her “Maybe-boyfriend”.

The pace of the novel is slow as we follow her complex internal dialogue about what she should do, her fears, her accounts of how the community reacts to her activities and descriptions of what life is like in this environment of threat, surveillance, oppression and violence. At first I found this slow pace frustrating, especially as there were parts early on that I felt could have been edited down. However, by the end of the book I could see that the author was building her character’s world quite carefully. Some readers will no doubt be only too aware of what life was like at this time in Belfast, the segregation, the violence, the suspicion, but most of us will not, and the slow pace ultimately helped to draw me in and help me appreciate the character’s dilemma. The sense of how she had no choice, the sense of how any behaviour outside the accepted norms is considered beyond the pale. For example, our character has a habit of “Walking while reading”, which almost everyone around her considers unacceptable behaviour and comments upon and encourages her to stop doing. It is ironic that such innocuous behaviour is thought to be dangerous and provocative in a context where shooting, killing and blackmail are not.

None of the characters in the book are named, all are referred to by their relationship to the central character (eg Ma, wee sisters, first sister), or some other title. This is not as complicated as it sounds and I think the author is trying to make her characters representative of the lived experiences of so many ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that time. It is also indicative of the dehumanising effect of the Troubles, and in particular what our young woman went through. By removing any autonomy or choice from her (and it was not just Milkman doing this, it was the strictures of the community) there is a gradual destruction of her selfhood.

So, a long and complex read, but a brilliant novel from a very talented writer. The prose is sublime, the language is like nothing I’ve read before, except perhaps Lisa McInerney. It won’t appeal to those who like action and plot, but for an examination of the day to day life of a young person in Northern Ireland during that terrible period it is something quite special, and very enlightening. Recommended.

Have you managed to read any of the Man Booker shortlisted titles yet?

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A little non-fiction for a change?

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Literary non-fiction is a genre that most of us rarely, if ever, dip into. There are thousands of non-fiction titles published every year in the UK and the bookshops are full of them, but look at the top-selling list in any given week and you will see that most of the top ten are cookbooks and autobiographies. 2017-02-01-11-42-32I’m not knocking either of these genres, I’m simply saying that literary non-fiction is a very tough genre to sell in. I read recently that the average non-fiction title in the US sells 250 copies a year (one for roughly every million people), or 2,000 copies over its lifetime. It makes you wonder why on earth you would write one! Many seem to be written by academics, journalists or people who have already established themselves in a chosen field and know they are writing for a particular niche. One striking thing about the genre, though, is that authors have a real passion for the topic, and the authenticity of the work is palpable.

 

The Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) is one of the top prizes in the world for non-fiction. I decided to make space in my reading life for more non-fiction this year and selected two from the 2016 shortlist: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson and East West Street by Philippe Sands, who was the winner of the prestigious prize (review to follow soon).

The issue of race, it seems to me, has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly difficult one for the United States, which I find peculiar given the country’s origins and the fact that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. Last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was a partly satirical fictional exploration of the issue, envisioning a community where segregation is reintroduced. I reviewed the book on this blog last year (read here) and described it as a complicated book, more extended essay than novel. Negroland is equally complex (as befits the topic perhaps) but is from a largely autobiographical perspective. The author gives an account of growing up in Chicago and then her early adulthood at university and beyond.

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Jefferson was born in 1947 and grew up at a time when segregation was still in place in parts of the United States. In the states where segregation had been abolished, discrimination still existed at every turn. Jefferson had the good fortune to be the daughter of educated parents who were relatively wealthy and enjoyed a reasonable social status; her father was a doctor and her mother a refined ‘society’ wife (insofar as black women could be ‘in’ society). Her parents strived to ensure their two daughters felt they could achieve just as much as any of their white peers and that if they worked hard they were just as entitled to the rewards of that success. They sent them to private schools and taught them about social protocols and manners, to make sure they could fit in.

For the two Jefferson girls, equality existed only at a superficial level, and it is clear that Margo grew up confused and ultimately troubled by the contradiction between the opportunities to which she was told she was entitled and her lived experience. She also explores the contradiction between the treatment and opportunities afforded to certain persons of colour (wealthier, educated types like her parents) and the majority, poorer (blacker?) people who remained at the bottom of the social heap and bore the contempt and the prejudice not only from whites but also, to some degree, higher class persons of colour. Thus, Margo found herself in the place she calls ‘Negroland’, not fully part of either the White or the Black community.

The author interweaves her autobiographical story with an exploration of parts of Black history and her own family history. The result is both a work of scholarship but also a highly personal account of life as a young black girl and woman coming of age in 1960s north-east America.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the personal story, though I found some of the historical material, particularly at the beginning, quite heavy-going. We read it in my book club and others enjoyed it less, wanting more of a narrative and less of the stream-of-consciousness. It’s definitely worth a look, particularly if you are interested in the topic or, like me, bemused by what is going on in the US on the race issue at this time.

If you have read Negroland: A Memoir I’d love to hear your views? Do you read much in the way of non-fiction?

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A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.