This novel begins with a blast of voice:
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was 18 and that he was 41 … It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.
The speaker doesn’t give her name, or anyone else’s, but in dialogue she’s addressed as ‘middle sister’ (by her sisters), as ‘daughter’ (by ma), as ‘sister-in-law’ (by third brother-in-law) and as ‘maybe-girlfriend’ (by her ‘almost one year so far maybe-boyfriend’). The milkman’s first words to her are: ‘You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you? So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he?’ He also mentions her four brothers, ‘thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy’. She can’t immediately rebuff him, ‘for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude.’ People are careful, where she lives, about what they say and don’t say, so there’s a lot of watching for unspoken cues, a constant scanning that she likens to hostile telepathy. Most people, she imagines, have learned to present only ‘their topmost mental level to those who were reading it’, keeping their real selves hidden in ‘the undergrowth of their consciousness’, and that’s what she tries to do with the milkman. It doesn’t work as well as she hopes.
The narrator, it soon turns out, is looking back at a couple of months towards the end of the 1970s. Two instances of misogynistic boneheadedness identify the general period: we hear about ‘mainstream boys … who wanted to beat up Julie Covington for singing “Only Women Bleed” [released in December 1977], which they thought was a song about periods’, and about ‘boys incensed at Sigourney Weaver for killing the creature in that new film [Alien, released in the UK in September 1979], when none of the men in that film had been able to kill the creature’. As for the place, it’s resolutely unnamed, but it isn’t an allegorical Everycity or a Russian novel-style ‘town of B ____’. From people’s speech, and the geography, and various large clues, such as the ‘political problems, which included bombs and guns and death and maiming’, the segregated sectarian neighbourhoods separated by ‘interface’ areas, and the paramilitaries with allegiances either ‘over the border’ or ‘over the water’, the city would appear to correspond to Belfast, and the narrator’s neighbourhood to Ardoyne, the Catholic, Irish nationalist district that’s also the main setting of Anna Burns’s first novel, No Bones (2001).
That novel, in which the characters have names like Roberta and Fergal and Bernadette and Vincent, centres on Amelia Lovett, who is a small girl when the Troubles start in 1969 and can’t believe that they’re still going on a whole week later. ‘Watchful and distrustful and … pertinaciously suspicious’, and also a precocious reader, she drifts in and out of the discontinuous episodes, along with her friends and family, until the story comes to an end in 1994. The early episodes are sad and comparatively low-key: Amelia failing to divert her sister with talk of Shakespeare and Enid Blyton while their mother prepares to fight off loyalist arsonists, or collecting rubber bullets instead of conkers. As the novel goes on, things get more consciously grotesque. An episode set in 1978 involves a series of grimly farcical collisions between a group of hooligans who are due to be kneecapped, some kids inspired by The Deer Hunter to try out Russian roulette, and an embezzling IRA treasurer looking for a quiet place to hang himself. The psychic costs of growing up in the middle of all this are what the title’s bones aren’t made about: there’s a preoccupation with drunken children, abusive sex and the way the conflict licenses male entitlement and personal vendettas. Amelia, who develops a difficult relationship with food and alcohol, isn’t the only character to spend time in a mental hospital.
No Bones is mostly written in a vigorous but straightforward free indirect style. ‘How did anybody ever survive feelings? Did anybody ever survive them? No wonder, she thought, so many didn’t bother having them to try.’ The writing gets more disorienting during the characters’ breakdowns, but it still manages to be witty when Amelia finds herself in North London, squabbling out loud with a voice in her head while buying tins of beans ‘in one of those dowdy, dingy, angst-ridden, “what’s the point of living” supermarkets, popular with poor people who didn’t have any money, and also with rich people who did, but thought that they shouldn’t have.’ Little Constructions (2007), Burns’s second novel, in which the characters have names like John Doe and Jetty Doe and JesseJudges Doe and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, has the same ferocious levity, but is even more intense. It’s an unsummarisable fantasia around sexual abuse and violence in the town of Tiptoe Floorboard, where John Doe, the big man of the Community Centre Action Team, is the presiding Ubu Roi figure:
He had these romances, Doe, and after he’d had them, the women he’d had them with, they became his ladies. That meant there was no way he’d let anybody put a finger on any of his girls. His ladies included not only his wife, his daughter, and most certainly Jetty, but also anybody he currently happened to be having, or whom he hadn’t had, but who was in his savings account and waiting for him there. His ladies were his ladies, said his code. That meant you kept your hands off.
In a flashback to one such ‘romance’ – the young Doe drags a woman from a bus stop in order to beat and rape her – the victim is put in mind of an acquaintance’s account of a similar experience. ‘And isn’t that amazing? Imagine remembering someone else’s rape memory in the middle of your own battering. It wasn’t as if her historical records were empty and she had to grab at anything. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t a portfolio of memories to call upon of her own.’
Violence is one way in which the community tries to palliate its shame and distress in Little Constructions. (Another way, Jetty’s way, is to pay for an expensive course of therapy, though she’s too angry to speak in any of the sessions.) For all that the Community Centre Action Team resembles a paramilitary organisation and/or a mafia, it would be a mistake to identify Tiptoe Floorboard too closely with north Belfast, and the same is true, to an extent, of the world depicted in Milkman. On the one hand, it’s clearly part of Burns’s project in Milkman to redescribe the Troubles without using such terms as ‘the Troubles’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘RUC’ and ‘British army’ and ‘IRA’. On the other, the narrator’s mad, first-principles language, with its abundance of phrases in inverted commas and sudden changes of register, is also used to describe the inner world of a young woman with no idea whom to tell, and no templates for what she might say, when she’s stalked and groomed by a powerful older man. The public-political and the personal-political aren’t easily disentangled, and there’s no reason that they should be. But the plot complicates the reader’s – and the narrator’s – sense of the way they interact.
It’s a brilliant rhetorical balancing act, and the narrator can be very funny as she sets about explaining her difficulties with the milkman, starting with who he is. ‘I didn’t know whose milkman he was. He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him.’ The salient fact about this ‘milkman’ is ‘his involvement, and by “involvement” I mean connected, and by “connected” I mean active rebellion, and by “active rebellion” I mean state-enemy renouncer owing to the political problems that existed in this place.’ (The novel often uses the danger of merely substituting one set of euphemisms for another as an occasion for elaborate verbal slapstick.) In other words, he’s an IRA man – a specialist, it turns out, in ‘shadowing and trailing and profiling’, and a major paramilitary player who is said to have taken part in several high-profile killings. When he offers the narrator a lift one day, an offer she declines, he makes it clear that he knows all about her job, her evening classes, her habit of walking around with her nose in a book. He also alludes to her maybe-boyfriend, a young car mechanic – a dangerous trade, he says casually, what with all the car bombs around.
So begins a sequence of blackly comic set-pieces and explanatory digressions that soon take a turn towards nightmarish personal crisis. Maybe-boyfriend, whom the narrator feels she mustn’t tell about the milkman, falls under suspicion in his own neighbourhood after winning the supercharger from an English racing car in a lottery at work. A neighbour points out that he might have won ‘the bit with that flag on’, meaning the union flag, which leads to a fistfight and an extensive analysis of unacceptably ‘over the water’ emblems, idioms and names, among them Nigel, Jason, Reginald, Keith, Peverill, Auberon and Duke Of. The narrator’s ma, whom she feels she mustn’t tell about maybe-boyfriend, picks up on the rapidly spreading rumours about her daughter’s relationship with a militant. ‘“In the name of God!” she cried. “Are they correct? Is everybody correct? Have you been fecundated by him, by that renouncer, that ‘top of wanted list’ clever man, the false milkman?”’ We’re also introduced to various social outcasts – ‘issue women’, a local feminist groupuscule; ‘real milkman’, a man of conscience (and a milkman) disliked by the IRA; ‘nuclear boy’, who worries about the arms race rather than problems closer to home; and ‘tablets girl’, a mad poisoner – and to a personal geographical lexicon of ‘“dot dot dot” places’, ‘the ten-minute area’ and ‘the usual place’. The last of these is the local graveyard, where most of the narrator’s anecdotes end up.
It’s also where her father is. Like the unmentionable ‘state-forces person’ – presumably an army or RUC man – whom one of her older sisters married, bringing disgrace on the family, he seems to have died from ‘some ordinary non-political illness’. The parents’ marriage wasn’t happy: the father suffered from ‘the psychologicals’, meaning depression, and his last words to the narrator ‘were alarming and focused on himself. “I was raped many times as a boy,” he said. “Did I ever tell you that?” At the time all I could think to reply was, “No.”’ Her eldest sister, too, is unhappily married, to an older man who used to mutter sexual words to the young narrator. He’s the ‘first brother-in-law’ who makes up and spreads salacious stories about her and the milkman. It’s because of these examples that the narrator has ‘maybe-relationships instead of highly principled, rectitudinous coupledom relationships’, and cultivates aloofness and inscrutability with the idea that they’ll keep her safe. But the flattened persona she puts on in the face of swirling gossip only makes her feel that her inner life is draining away, and when the milkman’s interest in her leads him to commit a non-political murder, an unheard-of event as far as the neighbourhood is concerned, she falls prey to the psychologicals herself.
What’s extraordinary about all this, though easy to overlook on a first reading, at least until the final stretch, is the density and tightness of the plotting behind the narrator’s apparently rambling performance. The whole thing could be transposed into a more conventional idiom, with proper names and in the third person, say, without rearranging the scene-by-scene construction. What’s more, the comic unfolding of the plot runs counter to the narrator’s pinched sense of what can and can’t be said and done in her neighbourhood, and, after a chilling final encounter with the milkman, there’s a darkly happy ending. Without sounding too therapised – she was raised, she says, ‘before these modern times when you can stand up and receive a round of applause for admitting there might be something wrong with your head’ – the narrator comes to entertain the possibility of trust, and of less destructive forms of communal solidarity, and to see that she has got the people around her all wrong. If that sounds sappy, it shouldn’t: the writing is scalding about such topics as the IRA’s kangaroo courts and the security services’ malign blundering until the very end. But as a reader you feel you’ve earned the novel’s more optimistic resolution, and that Burns, with her wild sentences and her immense writerly discipline, has too.