Even the Man Booker judges said that reading Anna Burn’s prize-winning Milkman was an uncomfortable experience – but certainly an intriguing one. For a start, there are no names at all in this novel, with all characters described by uncertain nomenclature such as ‘Something McSomething’, or ‘Chef’ or by their relationship to the narrator, such as ‘First Sister’ or ‘Maybe-Boyfriend’. There is also shifting and moving narrative, one that feels distant from the action.
Set during The Troubles in an unnamed Irish town, likely something like Belfast, Milkman tells two stories. The first is of the social cost of the armed resistance to British rule, and the strange impact this has on the community – making it a place of gossip and hearsay, of puzzles and kangaroo courts where there is justice for none and love is the most dangerous commodity of all. It is a community where you were ostracised for being involved in the resistance, or for not supporting it. Where innuendo is treated as fact and violence and coercion are second-nature and simply accepted as the cost of life. In fact, Burns focusses much more on the mental impact of the social milieu rather than the actual violence. The narrator delivers anecdotes of her existence and those around her that are brutal and threatening in such as non-plussed manner that we are left to question her state of mind (which in fact, many characters in the novel do). Fascinatingly unique – neither political nor involved – she seems to remain at a distance to the events around her, hiding in her books (19th century only – the 20th century doesn’t suit her). But her distancing of herself is more than just a narrative technique – it’s a survival technique.
The second is the story of this unnamed narrator, who is pursued as a young woman by a senior paramilitary figure known only as ‘Milkman’. This is a fascinating scenario – she is basically stalked by the much older married man and threatened when she takes up with another young man from across the city. And although she makes no signs of interest or acquiescence, his very notice of her makes the community believe they are having an affair. A man of his power and influence – following her in a non-descript white van as she walks down the street reading – are not to be ignored. Nor is it apparently to be questioned or stopped. Whether she likes it or not, she is his now.
It’s clear that narrator and many of the characters are trapped. And it’s also clear that the narrative can’t go far – this is a journey you have to take in rather than focus on the destination. How would I surmise it? Milkman is vivid. Detailed. Exceptional. But yes – also challenging.
My favourite read of this year so far is Naomi Alderman’s The Power. I picked this book up with the idea that it might cover some of the same territory and perhaps reproduce some of the same magic.
It’s style is haunting, dark and compelling. Three young women live on a remote island – we are neither sure where nor when, only that their mother and a male father figure, ‘King’ tell them that the outside world is dangerous – women are treated without respect and the very air itself can cause them harm. To “strengthen” their hearts and minds, they are subjected to what can only be described as mental and physical tortures. But the reader can see that these ordeals rather keep them supressed, living both physically and emotionally with so little nourishment.
Once, women used to seek refuge here. But now, they are alone. One day, King disappears. Shortly after that, two men and a boy wash ashore. What follows is a taut but slow unwinding of relationships and lies – but no real truths. I am still left wondering many things after closing the final page.
I found this lyrical and spare novel on the Man Booker Longlist – sadly it never made it to the shortlist. In a sense, I can see why. This book poses a lot of fascinating questions – enough to garner serious interest. But without answers, the reader is left wondering as to the exact purpose and message of Sophie Mackintosh.
Ali Smith’s Autumn is a lyrical novel, but also a puzzling one.
Part of her Seasonal series (followed by the now released Winter), each of the novels is touted to deal with “time and how we experience it”. This explains the non-linear narrative utilised in this novel.
The central focus here is the relationship between Elisabeth, a young girl (and at other times in the text, a young woman) and her neighbour, an elderly man called Daniel Gluck. Gluck is an exceptional kind of man – one who encourages Elisabeth to see the world in new ways. It is the central relationship of Elisabeth’s life – one that shapes her career and her future relationships.
Threaded through it all is ponderings on feminism, literature, art and Brexit – and how it could be signifying a shift to a more xenophobic world. Things no doubt high on Smith’s list of priorities and concerns in the world around her today. It jumps around a lot – and we fins out more about Elisabeth than we do Daniel, who remains a somewhat mysterious figure.
I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her beautiful writing, Autumn takes things that appear mundane, and lifts them to a whole other level.
This is another Man Booker nominee, a slim kind of a volume with plenty to say within its pages. Mohsin Hamid comments of love, refugees and out culture of fearing the outsider in Exit West.
Nadia and Saeed meet in a country on the brink of disaster. Although the name of this place is never revealed, it appears to be somewhere in the Middle East. He is traditionally and she – despite her traditional outerwear – a progressive. They seem an unlikely couple, but are drawn together during the crumbling of their worlds.
They flee their homeland and cling to each other in various refugee camps – the way to many of which are opened though magical doors that lead you to another part of the world – an odd but fascinating little aspect of this story that Hamid tells in such a commonplace way that you would expect the door to your spare bedroom to lead you to London too. It leads to an interesting sense of dislocation for the characters – and allows for fascinating depictions of the inhabitants of those lands who are suddenly overrun by refugees. Hamid has a sharp eye and while it’s clear he condemns those who would reject those who need it a place in their country, in his magical world even these strange intrusions are eventually forgiven and ways forward are found. And surely if they can, we an ourselves?
A fascinating and thought-provoking read – definitely one for our times.
I always make it a point to read at least a few of the Booker-nominated titles each year. The first was Judas by Amos Oz – not a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but Oz is such a beautiful writer I thought it was worth a look.
Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very different kind of book. A fast-paced novella, Fever Dream is a chilling mystery that is never fully solved. This will alienate some readers straight away. And even though I too was somewhat frustrated by the lack of resolution, Schweblin’s story is a hard one to put down.
The story begins in a darkened hospital room. Amanda is near death, and telling her story to David, the enigmatic son of a neighbour. David urges her to recount her last 24 hours to identify the exact time the ‘worms’ took over and caused her death.
In recounting her time in the Argentinian countryside Amanda ends up telling David about a conversation she has with Carla, David’s mother. She is worried about David – ever since a psychic transmigrated his soul in order to save his life. She calls this new David “a monster”. Amanda is worried for her child Nina too. Something is strange about this landscape, and she feels the “rescue distance” (the space between her and Nina that she feels is safe) is getting smaller and smaller.
David is a hard task-master, shaping and cutting off Amanda’s narrative, focused on getting to the story of the worms. And something is definitely wrong here. Schweblin’s all-pervading and lasting sense of foreboding is inescapable.
I doubt you’ll be able to put Fever Dream down. I don’t know whether you’ll find it entirely satisfactory at the end, but you’ll be impatient to get there.
There’s a lot to like about Judas, the 2017 Man Booker Prize nominated novel by Amos Oz. An Israeli, Oz has exceptionally beautiful prose and seems to have mastered romantic longing in his stories.
This one if about Schmuel, a university student dedicated to the study if Jewish views of Christ – and that also if Judas, a largely demonised character in Christian mythology but not so much in historical record. But Schmuel’s life is upended when his parents announce they can no longer afford his school fees, and his girlfriend leaves him to marry her ex.
Schmuel quickly finds himself living as a companion to an old Jewish politician and his daughter-in-law, a sad and mysterious women who quickly he comes to dream about.
Its a book about foolish young hearts, unrequited love, intellectual curiosity, and the ostracising of the Jews for their failure to recognise Jesus as the messiah. Some of this was deeply religious, and some political and much of it admittedly outside of my sphere of understanding. And this did slow down my reading of what ultimately is a finely crafted story.
I always try to read a couple of the Man Booker nominations each year – although I find I’m rarely sophisticated enough to agree with the winner. This year’s winner – The Sellout – drove me a little mad. I haven’t given up on it entirely, but certainly I’ve given up on it for now.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was another matter. Subtitled Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, the novel is styled like true crime, but in reality is totally fictional. It’s a vivid portrait of life in a small Scottish croft in the years proceeding 1869, and the bloody murders that occurred and subsequently gripped the imagination of the wider public. Part portrait, part social commentary His Bloody Project is both intelligent and readable. The characters are engaging and well-realised, particularly the murderer Roddy Macrae, who is an interesting blend of intelligence and naievety. This makes his trial all the more interesting – is he a cold-blooded killer or someone not capable of making a rational decision? Worth a look – more accessible no doubt than some of the other nominees.