Category Archives: Irish authors

Intense novel shows a city in turmoil: Milkman by Anna Burns [Review]

Milkman by Anna Burns

 

The Troubles in Ireland

Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.

Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.

Where masked  paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.

Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.

We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.

She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.

Dangerous to read and walk

Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books.   She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property.  He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.

Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.

A City in Turmoil

Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population  fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.  Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”  Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.

It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’

But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.

Powerful voice of narrator

The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman

Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a  Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of  a creepy stalker.  She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”

It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure.   It’s certainly unconventional.  It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.


Milkman: Key Facts

Milkman by Anna Burns

  • Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
  • The Chair of the Booker judges,  Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous;  beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
  • Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019

Anna Burns: Key Facts 

  • Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones. 
  • She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
  • She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.

Why I read Milkman

Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.

It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith #bookreview

vicar of wakefieldThe Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith was one of the most popular and widely read 18th-century novels among Victorians.

I wonder what appealed most to them in this tale of  the misfortunes that beset a country priest and his family, the humour or its emphasis on the strength of the family as a social institution?

It’s a rather ‘gentle’ comedy about one of life’s innocents, Dr. Charles Primrose, whose blissful family existence is brutally interrupted when the merchant investor to whom he has entrusted his family’s fortune, absconds with all the money.  As a consequence his eldest son’s wedding with the daughter of a wealthy family is called off as a consequence. The rest of the family have to move to a more humble parish. Further mishaps follow: fire destroys their new home; a daughter is abducted by a scoundrel squire and a son is thrown into jail accused of involvement in a duel.

What’s so funny about this you might well wonder? It’s certainly not laugh out loud material, rather the kind that just makes you smile as you find Dr Primrose stumble into yet another situation that he doesn’t fully understand.

He’s a kind, good natured and well-meaning kind of man at heart. One whose spirit is dampened, but never extinguished by all the calamaties he experiences. When his money has gone he entreats his family to focus on happiness rather than trappings of gentility and to find “that every situation in life might bring its own particular pleasures.” Nothing gives him more delight than to be surrounded by his family near the fireside and he extols the virtues of married life at every opportunity.

The family is one of the key themes of the novel though Goldsmith also touches on class and gender and of course, faith. Ultimately this is a tale about a man whose devotion to his faith , though tested, doesn’t falter and who is rewarded for such devotion.

Was it an enjoyable book to read?

Not really.

I was on the point of giving up a few times. I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters or what became of them and I found the moral homilies and sermons irritating.  It was rather a dull book I thought and not one I would recommend.

I read it only because it was on my Classics Club list and it coincided with the ReadingIreland month hosted by Cathy at 746books.com


About the book

The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766 though is believed to have been written a few years earlier. According to James Boswell, Goldsmith’s biographer, the author was in some financial difficulties at the time and unable to pay the rent on his accommodation. He asked Samuel Johnson for help, mentioning he had written a book. Johnson sold a share to the bookseller Francis Newbery,  enabling Goldsmith to pay off his debts. Newberry then sat on the book for about two years.

About the author

Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish novelist, playwright and poet, whose best known work is  The Vicar of Wakefield . If however you went through the UK education system during the 60s and 70s, you may remember being forced to study another of his works:  She Stoops to Conquer . That was supposed to be a comedy too but the only reaction I can remember from my classmates is one of groans.

 

Reading Horizons: Episode 15

Reading Horizons, 27 February 2019

What are you currently reading? 

This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.

What did you recently finish reading? 

I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way.  Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.

What do you think you’ll read next?

16 trees of the sommeGiven the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland Islands.

My plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK.

So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops  I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan [book review]

Low and Quet SeaWere it not for the Booker Prize I’m not sure I would have ever experienced Donal Ryan’s work.

He was long listed in 2013 with The Spinning Heart, winning The Guardian first book award the same year. Narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash; it reveals the impact of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger on the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town.  In my review I described it as “technically adroit … with pitch perfect characterisation.”

That same description can be equally applied to his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which is on this year’s Booker Prize long list.

I thought it would be hard to beat The Spinning Heart but Ryan has done it with From a Low and Quiet Sea . 

The cast of characters has been significantly trimmed. We’re now focused on three men all of whom have something missing in their lives: a Syrian refugee, a crooked lobbyist and a young man dealing with the heartache of a lost love.

Each man is given their own section in the novel.

Farouk is a doctor who escapes from Syria with his wife and daughter in the hope of finding a more stable, peaceful life in western Europe. Too late, they discover they have been duped and instead of being let to safety are left adrift at sea in the midst of a storm.  Ryan apparently wrote this story after hearing a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country.  Though short, this  was  an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose

They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots . . . sending their messages cell by cell . . . If a tree is starving, its neighbour will send it food. No one knows how this can be, but it is . . . They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind.

The style and pace change markedly for section two which features Lampy, a young man who is pining after the girl he loved who dumped him when she went off to college. He works in a care home, occassionally driving the old inhabitants to their medical appointments. He lives with his mother and grandfather Dixie – a man who loves taking people in the pub down a peg of two. Lampy is frequently frustrated by the old man yet also loves him, feeling “ a strange thrill of pride. His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”

And finally we get to John, a ruthless man involved in very shady dealings, who is full of remorse for long-ago relationship with a younger woman. He tells his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family life fell apart when his brother died and he became obsessed with a young woman he met in a bar.

At first it seems these stories have no relationship to each other. It’s only in the fourth – and final – section that they are drawn together in a way that surprised me. To say more would be to spoil the experience of this book for other readers.

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a brief book but it’s one that lingers in the mind. Every character has a unique voice, from melancholy to matter of fact confession but there is also humour  – there’s a wonderfully funny scene on the bus where the old people grumble because the vehicle breaks down. It’s so good I’m tempted to read it again soon which is something that I rarely do.

I’m not the only blogger to have enjoyed this book. Check out the reviews at A Life in Books and DolceBellezza.net

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

Midwinter BreakThere’s an oft-quoted comment that only the people involved really know what is going in any relationship. In the case of the Gilmores,  the key people in Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break, it seems only one of the duo has this insight.

Gerry and Stella Gilmore are taking a short trip to Amsterdam. Gerry thinks they’re going to do the usual tourist activities like visiting Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum. What he doesn’t know is that Stella has an agenda of her own, one in which Gerry plays no part. It transpires that the title of the book refers not merely their long weekend break in Amsterdam, but to the threat of a rupture in their marriage.

As MacLaverty takes us from the perspective of one to the other, it becomes evident to us — if not to the people concerned — how much their marriage is based on familiarity and routine.  And on secrets.

Every time they have a lift to themselves, they kiss between floors – it is just a little thing they do. Whenever they’re out walking, they hold hands in case she falls. Each day they share updates on their various aches and pains; a discussion which has become so institutionalised it even has its own name — the Ailment Hour. Stella likes to do crosswords and have an afternoon nap to compensate for her insomnia.

Gerry’s secret pleasure is of the liquid variety. Never happier than when he has a glass of something in his hand. Unless it’s a bottle in his pocket. He thinks he’s being so smart when he hides the glass from her site or slips out of the hotel bedroom at night to hide his empty bottles in a litter bin. But he’s forgotten that Stella’s a smart woman.

She’s been keeping her secret for decades. One that takes the story back to their home land of Ireland during the period of The Troubles. They left the country after Stella was injured in a street shooting incident, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Her close shave with death set her on a spiritual path where in her remaining years, she wants to live “a more valuable life” and “make a contribution, however small” to the world. Now, in Amsterdam, she is attempting to fulfil a promise even though that means she must set Gerry aside.

MacLaverty’s attention to detail as he dissects this marriage is evident. Nothing this couple does, however small, seems to escape attention from the packet of Werther’s Originals they share at take-off to the pleated paper wrapping the bar of hotel soap and the colour of spit after red wine.

It was an enjoyable read overall though two factors spoiled it rather. One was that  MacLaverty’s unhurried pace and careful attention to each moment of the weekend, sometimes ran away with him. Towards the end of the book for example Gerry reflects on all the things about Stella that he admires. Chief of which is it seems the depth and breadth of her knowledge bank. Not enough to just tell us this, we have to have a list of every single thing that she knows:

She knew that the full name of the Litany recited after the rosary of benediction was th Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She knew that Albert Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman, that farinaceous meant floury when applied to potatoes but that flowery language could not be described as such, as farinaceous… She knew the recipes for mushroom stroganoff and spaghetti carbonara and about forty-two other dishes without looking at a cookery book … Oh and that a Sitzprobe was nothing medical but the rehearsal for an opera.

And on and on this goes. For four whole pages…. Very tiresome indeed and totally unnecessary.

The second aspect that prevented this being an out and out success for me was the premise for Stella’s decision to leave Gerry. We learn that as she lay wounded in Ireland, she prayed that her unborn child would be saved, making a vow that if the child lived she would be in debt to her Lord for the rest of her life. Now in Amsterdam she visits the Begijnhof, home of a Catholic sisterhood, with the intention of fulfilling that vow by taking up residence and living a life of piety and good works. This didn’t ring true for me if she felt that strongly, wouldn’t she have followed through on the promise much earlier –  not wait 30 years?

It’s a shame because otherwise this was a good story full of close observation of the reality of life.

About the Author

Bernard MacLaverty comes from Northern Ireland.  His novels include Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes (shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize) and The Anatomy School. He has written five books of short stories. Midwinter Break was published in 2017

Why I read this book

It was selected for one of the book clubs I’ve joined. The general reaction was very favourable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle [Booker prize]

Is it possible to appreciate a novel and yet not particularly enjoy reading it? To admire the technical prowess of the author and their creativity but be missing the buzz of having a pleasurable experience?

That’s certainly been my reaction to a few of the novels I’ve read as part of my Booker prize project. I’m thinking in particular of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but to a lesser extent I had the same feeling when I read  In A Free State by V. S Naipaul and S Byatt’s Possession: A Romance  . 

paddy clarkeIt’s happened again with my latest Booker prize read; the 1993 winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

This is a tale of one year in the life of 10-year-old Paddy Clarke who lives with his mum, dad, younger brother Francis (aka Sinbad) and baby sister Deidre in the fictional suburb of Barrytown, North Dublin. It begins with him as a mischievous boy who roams around Barrytown with his mates and ends with him becoming “the man of the house” when his parents split up and dad leaves th family home.

In between lie multiple adventures and episodes involving interactions with family members, friends and teachers. Paddy and his best mate Kevin (the instigator of most of their adventures) like to start fires, write their names in wet cement, harass elderly ladies and occasionally steal from shops.  Their playgrounds are the bushes surrounding the neighbours’ gardens and building sites which sprout and then disappear.

We got material from our houses and made headbands. Mine was a tartan one, with a seagull’s feather. We took off our jumpers and shirts and vests. James O’Keefe took off his trousers and rode through Bayside in his underpants. His skin was stuck to the saddle when he was getting off, from the sweat; you could hear the skin clinging to the plastic. We threw his trousers onto the roof of a garage, and his shirt and his vest. We put his jumper down a shore.

Paddy is an exuberant narrator who tells his tale in a sporadic, fragmented style that shifts from one event to another with seemingly little connection. What holds everything together however are the glimpses we get of Paddy trying to make sense of the changes in his world, particularly in the relationship between his parents.

He stays awake every night to listen for raised voices coming from the kitchen or the bedroom.  He doesn’t understand the shouting and the screamed whispers. But he does want them to stop. At first he tries sheer force of will:

—— Stop.

There was a gap. It had worked; I’d forced them to stop. Da came out and went in to the television. I knew the wait of his steps and the time between them, then I saw him.

They didn’t slam any doors: it was over.

When that stops working he decides to become a model student, even if that means getting on Kevin’s bad side. He reasons that if he works hard in school there’d be no reason for his parents to argue. But gradually, when he sees his father hit his mother, he realises that his efforts have been in vain.

He’s a complex boy, often picking on his brother Sinbad, burning his mouth with lighter fuel and kicking him in bed at night. It’s all a front. Paddy doesn’t want to hurt the child, he just wants him to stay awake, to have someone to talk to rather than just listen to the arguments downstairs.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is very much a novel in the Bildungsroman mode. Paddy is  pushed into growing up but he only does so to a limited extent. His knowledge of the world is beginning to change. He sees change but doesn’t understand it. He just knows that his playground is getting smaller, disappearing under concrete. He knows his parents are going their separate ways. But the why eludes him. Understandable really given that he’s still just 10 when the novel ends.

Boyle’s ability to make Paddy an authentic voice is impressive. He captures the bravado and the insecurities superbly. There were some points at which I wanted to laugh out loud (the steeplechase game they play around the neighbours’ gardens is a hoot). And times when I felt saddened by the pain this boy endures.

Plenty to applaud therefore in this novel. So why didn’t I enjoy it more? I think it comes down to my feeling that the narrative was repetitive. Anecdote piled on top of anecdote on top of anecdote with not enough variation for me.  I found I was skimming a lot of paragraphs which is never a good sign. I did find it endearing and touching at the end (where the significance of the book’s title becomes apparent) but getting to that point was often hard work.

Footnotes

About the Book:  Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle was published in 1993 by Secker and Warburg. It won the Booker Prize that year.

About the Author:> Doyle was born in Dublin which has been the setting for many of his novels. He spent several years as an English and geography teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 1993. Doyle’s first three novels, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) comprise The Barrytown Trilogy, a trilogy centred on the Rabbitte family. All three novels were made into successful films.

Why I read this book:Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one of the five titles remaining to be read from my Booker Prize project. Since March is ReadingIrelandmonth hosted by Cathy at 746books.com it seemed like a good time to dust it off the shelves.

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