Normal People was one of the most talked-about books of 2018. It was touted as a potential Booker Prize winner (though didn’t get further than longlist); won the Costa Prize and has now been longlisted for the Women’s Prize.
Given all the award nominations, the euphoric reviews and the number of times Normal People appeared in end of year “best books” lists, I was expecting a lot more from the book.
It’s a tale about an on-off romance between two Millenials from completely different backgrounds. Connell and Marianne attend the same school in small town Carricklea in County Mayo, Ireland. Both are high achievers but there the similarity ends. He”s very popular, the star of the school football ; she has no friends; sits alone at lunch breaks reading Proust and is viewed as a bit of a misfit who “wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face.”. He lives with his single parent mother who is a cleaner. She comes from a rich family.
They begin a clandestine relationship in school (secret because he’s afraid of what his friends would think). Marianne persuades Connell to follow her to Trinity College in Dublin. There their lives are reversed; she becomes part of the in-crowd; he feels out of place.
They spend four years alternately pursuing and withdrawing from each other. They can’t commit to each other but neither can they survive apart. Whenever they try to pull apart, to find other partners, one of them will come back, seeking the other’s support and help.
As Connell reflects at one stage, he and Marianne are like figure skaters
…improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”
A Novel To Suit All Generations?
I suspect the book was aimed at a different age group than my own – my 20-something year old niece loved it. But I don’t think my lack of rapport was entirely attributable to a generational gap.
Problem number one was that the first half of the book was slow and had far too many scenes that were stuffed with mundane details. Here’s one example, taken from a chapter where at the end of a holiday travelling around Europe, Connor ends up at the Greek villa where Marianne and her friends have made their holiday home.
Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.
None of this adds to our understanding of character or the dynamics between the characters. It could omitted without materially affecting he narrative in any way.
Familiar Perspective On Love
Second problem: too much of the plot relied upon miscommunication and gaps between what was said and was was felt. David Nicholls used a similar device in One Day but he made it feel fresh and natural; in Rooney’s novel. it felt contrived.
Normal People didn’t seem to be saying anything that hasn’t already been said in other novels about young love and love across a class divide. Actually for a large part of the book I wasn’t even clear what it was trying to say.
In essence I suppose it aims to show how a relationship helps two people who feel alone, adrift and misunderstood, to learn how to be like “normal people.” To reach that understanding they have to endure physical pain (Marianne) and emotional pain (Connell). Exactly what the normality to which they strive consists of, is unclear since there are no “normal people” who act as role models – with the one notable exception of Connell’s mother.
Uninspired By Characters
This brings me to my third issue with Normal People: the characters of the two principals are examined in minute detail but everyone else around them are sketchily rendered.
In Dublin, Marianne is surrounded by people who have few qualities beyond their willing participation in her desire to be hurt. Connell, when he’s not spending every minute with Marianne, strikes up relationships with nice but dull women.
I get the fact that this is a novel about a relationship so all-consuming it robs everything, and everyone else around them, of colour and vitality. But the result is that the other cast members are flattened to the point where they often feel irrelevant. If I’d been deeply invested in Marianne and Connell’s characters , that wouldn’t have been an issue. But I found the repetitive nature of their relationship irritating and annoying.
I’ve seen reviews which describe Normal People as a “future classic”, a novel that shows what it is to be young and in love in the twenty-first century. It’s a novel that has clearly resonated with many readers. I did grow to appreciate it more when it took on a darker tone in the final third. But to put this on a pedestal as a work of classic literature is stretching things too far.
It’s St Patrick’s Day and though the pubs are closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can celebrate in other ways. So lets take the opportunity to honour the rich literary heritage of Ireland with a short literary tour.
There are hundreds of novels I could pick for this tour. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the 746books blog. Cathy has created three separate lists based on her extensive knowledge of her country’s literary scene. So you can choose from 100 Irish novels, 100 novels by Irish women writers and 100 titles by authors from Northern Ireland.
I’m going to limit myself to just five novels. They’re all books that have made a deep impression upon me.
Edna O’Brien didn’t enamour herself to people in Ireland when her first novel The Country Girls was published in 1960. It was banned by the Irish censorship board and faced significant public criticism because of its portrayal of sex outside marriage. The Catholic Church called it “filth”
O’Brien has since redeemed herself to the extent she was honoured in 2015 as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary honour. She is still going strong though now in her early eighties and has continued to write about controversial subjects.
The Little Red Chairs is a haunting novel that takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal – is discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland.
Colm Tóibin won the 2009 Costa Novel Award with his novel Brooklyn, the first half of which is set in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy. I enjoyed it but not as much as his later novel Nora Webster.
Where Brooklyn gave us a portrait of a young single girl, Nora Webster focuses on a middle-aged widow who is struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. Though the focus is very much on the individual, there is a political background to the novel. We’re in the 1960s when political troubles north of the border are on the rise. Nora’s husband had a history of involvement with Fianna Fáil (Republican) politics, and now she discovers her daughter is taking part in protests in Dublin.
The Spinning Heart was one of my favourite novels from 2014. It would never have been published but for an intern who found it in a ‘reject’ pile and raved about it so much she persuaded the publishers it needed to see the light of day. The Booker Prize jurors agreed with her, longlisting it for their award in 2014.
Donal Ryan’s novel dives into a community that is reeling from the sudden end of a period of boom in Ireland, a time when the country was labelled as Celtic Tiger. A local building firm goes bust having over-stretched itself. The boss flees the country, leaving behind unpaid employees and no money in their pension funds. The repercussions are told through the voices of 21 characters who are directly or indirectly affected by the collapse. It’s a masterful work of characterisation.
Bold, brash and edgy; Lisa McInerey’s debut novel portrays a side of Ireland that never features in any tourism brochures. The Glorious Heresies takes us deep in the seedy underworld of Cork; into its grim housing estates populated by schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.
It might sound grim but McInery make us both weep and laugh at the sheer muddle of the lives of the misfits that inhabit this small city. For sheer exuberant story-telling, this is a novel that would be hard to beat.
Milkman is a novel I didn’t think I would finish. But I did and it was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2018.
It’s a strange novel. The location is never named (though we are led to believe it’s Belfast); nor is the narrator. In fact none of the characters have real names; they’re given soubriquets instead which can make the novel confusing. But once you’ve worked out who “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend” are, and have read between the lines to appreciate what’s actually happening, the book proves riveting.
Burns tackles a problematic period in the history of Ireland, the years known as The Troubles, when paramilitary forces took their fight for independence onto the streets, dolling out summary justice to anyone standing in their way. The narrator is a teenager who catches the unwelcome attention of a paramilitary leader, turning her into a figure of distrust and fear in her community.
It’s a tremendous novel, unconventional but unforgettable.
It’s hard to do justice to a country with such a rich culture and history in just 5 books. I know there are many other books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list?
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is Books With Single-Word Titles.
I’m giving my list an international flavour because this week marks the start of two reading months celebrating the literature of Celtic nations. Wales Reading Month 2020 (otherwise known as Dewithon2020) and Irish Reading Month are highlights of the year. We’re also in the midst of the Japanese Literature Challenge.
So I’m going to build my list entirely from books by Welsh and Irish authors. that I’ve either read or have on my “to read” shelves.
Pigeon by Alys Conran: A debut novel from an author who is a talent to watch. Alys swept the boards at the Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards 2017 with this tale of a prank by two children from broken homes. It goes disastrously wrong, with consequences for the rest of their lives.
Cove by Cynan Jones: A stunningly atmospheric novella about a man who is incapacitated while kayaking in the midst of a storm. All he hopes is to make it back to land, to the woman and unborn child who need him.
Resistance by Owen Sheers: a highly regarded novel which imagines what might have unfolded if wartime German troops had occupied a remote Welsh community.
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer: I had to include Belinda because she lives very close to my home! This is her award-winning debut work that is part one of a crime trilogy set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: a quietly understated but no less effective novel set partly in a provincial Irish town in the early 1950s. The central character has to make a choice between remaining in the town with its limited opportunities or seeking a new life in New York.
Troubles by J G Farrell. This is the first title in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy. The plot concerns the dilapidation of a once grand Irish hotel (symbolic of the declining British Empire), in the midst of the political upheaval during the Irish War of Independence. Though it’s a commentary on the state of Ireland, the novel is very funny at time because the set is is rather bizarre with the frayed-around=the edges guests forced to share their accommodation with a large number of feral cats.
Milkman by Anna Burns: one of the most well-deserved winners of the Booker Prize in recent years. It takes patience to tune into the digressive, stream of consciousness narration where no character is given a name. But this novel set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s Troubles is incredibly powerful.
Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. This is one I bought several years ago (but have not yet read) after I read her hugely successful novel Room. Slammerkin is also a story of survival, this time set in the 1760s. It focuses on Mary Saunders, a teenage girl forced to make her own way in the world after being put out on to the streets by her callous mother.
Girl by Edna O’Brien: At the age of 88, Edna O’Brien, is showing no sign of losing her capacity to write thought-provoking novels that tackle contemporary issues. Girl is a story set in an unnamed country but is recognisably Nigeria and imagines the lives of the girls abducted by Boko Haram. This is high on my “to read’ list.
Do any of these appeal to you? What would you have put on your own version of this Top 10?
Milkman by Anna Burns
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, 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 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?
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.
There’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.