[I read this 2018 novel in four sections of a few chapters each, and wrote about each section before reading on.]
17 February 2019
Chapters 1, 2, and some of Chapter 3
The chapters just keep getting longer, which I mention because the narrator of this memoir of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is taking stream-of-consciousness to a new level. It isn’t stream-of-consciousness as Virginia Woolf does it in, say, Mrs Dalloway, in which the author does her best to evoke the moment-by-moment unfolding of a day as her characters perceive it. This is more like the way Laurence Sterne does it in Tristram Shandy, when it’s the narrator’s consciousness we’re sharing: he might tell us something, then immediately rewind or go on what seems like a digression. The narrator of Milkman doesn’t simply fill in a few background details of the events leading up to whatever has happened, but—and this is where the real fun starts—she spends pages trying to explicate the thinking of the people involved. And in this unnamed city—everything and everybody is unnamed by this narrator, including the narrator herself—everybody is involved in everything. The language she uses to take the reader down the twisted pathways of the minds of these people is darkly, surreally comic. It’s also terrifying.
I can’t remember reading anything like this. I’ve mentioned Tristram Shandy, although Burns’s presentation of the harsh rules of a particular working-class community are more like James Kelman. But not much. Kelman’s strength is his ability to do subtle things within the idiolect of his characters. Burns, in having her narrator describing many years later her eighteen-year-old self in the late 1970s, has her using the language she grew up with, but altered into something new and strange. It isn’t only that she uses a lexicon that would be completely alien to the ultra-conventional members of the community—they’re all ultra-conventional, in that comic-terrifying way we’re getting to know—she has her own rules about how events can be described. There are dangers lurking in every nook and cranny of everyday conversations, and she presents the doublethink and self-censorship this leads to. The contortions people go through in order to stand firmly on the side of agreed norms, are bizarre to the point of absurdity.
You can see this in Chapter 3, which I’ve just started reading. It opens when the narrator tells us that milkman—she never capitalises nicknames—has made his third move on her, after she’d naively hoped she’d shaken him off. Fifteen pages later, which is as far as I’ve read, we haven’t got to that moment yet. Instead, among other things, we’ve had is a long set-piece scene at the French class the narrator attends, outside which milkman’s van seems to have been parked, creating a link of sorts. The class members all hate the teacher, not because she is French but because she constantly attempts to overcome their rigid mindset. The issue on this particular evening is the colour of the sky. She has read them a literary description in which every colour except blue seems to have been mentioned, and one of the class objects. The others all agree, and she takes them to another room to see the sunset. The narrator admits that there’s no blue in it, but can’t say so. The others, whilst having clearly lived through a moment of enlightenment—she tells us they’ve never seen a sunset, because it isn’t what people do in that city, whichever community they live in—can’t possibly talk about it. They don’t object to the literary description any more, but they keep quiet. It’s the mindset this narrator has to live with. And at the age of eighteen she’s begun to understand that until now, she’s been stuck in it herself.
She makes her way home, having pretended to herself that the van isn’t milkman’s. She has to pass through the ‘ten-minute area’, a surreally described dead zone that everyone, whatever their community, passes through quickly. And, as she digresses about it and its three dead churches, one of which has recently been blown up by what turned out to have been a wartime bomb, she tells us some more about her mother. It’s been getting difficult with her, because of the rumours about who the narrator is supposedly seeing—I’ll come back to all that—and now the narrator remembers asking her once about the ten-minute area. It becomes a riff on how her mother doesn’t deal with questions from her: ‘You ask peculiar questions, daughter.’ And, as far as we know, she hasn’t got home yet, and we’re expecting the van to appear anytime now.
Is the world she shows us anything like the Belfast that Burns grew up in from the early 1960s? I wouldn’t know, obviously, but I know enough to believe that it’s a satirical version of a very recognisable reality. The narrator’s mother is a comic type, but there’s far too much painful truth in the depiction for there to be anything funny about her. Like so many others in the narrator’s experience, she’s terrifying. The narrator’s solution, as for a lot of people having to live with constant anxiety, is to withdraw into her own world. Her own way is reading-while-walking, a habit nobody likes at all. It’s a kind of emblem of her difference, just as the lesson about the colours in the sky is emblematic of a bigger idea. The narrator lives in this community, but ignores it in favour of different versions of the world. And in doing so, her mother and one of her brothers-in-law tell her she makes herself stand out. Which is exactly what nobody does, ever.
I need to rewind. Milkman is mentioned in the first sentence: ‘The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the 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.’ Then she goes on to describe, or begin to describe, the complications of her life since milkman began to pay attention to her. He offers her a lift, but even she knows he isn’t a good person to be seen with, and she refuses. Then he joins her in one of her long runs, keeping up with her until she somehow can’t prevent him from slowing them both down. She offers him nothing, but she’s noticed the click of one of ‘the state’s’ hidden cameras, and the state isn’t the only one keeping its eyes open. By the second chapter, her mother is convinced she’s having an affair with this dangerous, 40-something man. Growing more and more exasperated, the narrator breaks her own rule and tells her mother about both encounters. She’s shocked by her mother’s response, ‘Liar!’ and decides she won’t try to tell the truth again.
That’s nearly it as far as the plot’s concerned, but it isn’t really about plot. Anna Burns’s unnamed country, or province or whatever, is a dystopia to match Orwell’s vision of 1984. Maybe it really is 1984, but how would we know? This narrator doesn’t name years either. Instead she has a community in which doublethink is the norm, and she’s made it strange by removing anything identifiable. Even the usual terms for things have been replaced by a new brand of newspeak, as blandly neutral as Orwell’s original. The IRA are renouncers of the state. Protestants are those who live across the road, terrorists, as such, don’t exist in this euphemistic miasma where nothing means anything. Except the narrator is a part of this unnamed community in which soldiers on patrol, the ones who shot milkman, are a state hit-squad.
She doesn’t leave us readers to work this all out for ourselves. She is fascinated by language, and is happy to use thesaurus-style lists. This isn’t in order to clarify, but to blur meanings. ‘Troubles’ are mentioned, but only in the context of a list including, if I remember rightly, problems, issues, and half-a-dozen other words nobody ever used to describe what happened in Northern Ireland. There’s no glib journalese in these pages.
And, most interesting of all, this is a young woman’s story in a world dominated by the kinds of men we get to meet in these pages. There’s first brother-in-law, the one that first sister married on the rebound from the one she should have married but who got killed in a car-bomb after she’d foolishly chucked him. He, first brother-in-law, is as fond of thesaurus-lists as the narrator is, cataloguing, say, different names for her genitalia. But in ordinary ways too, women are in a terrible position. Often it’s through completely spurious suggestions of guilt by association. The narrator is in no way associated with milkman and yet, when she explains this to her mother, the rumour-mill, or the mindset-mill, has made all contradiction futile. She, the narrator, knows this, and tells stories of other people who have to watch themselves. Third brother-in-law, the one she likes and who she starts to go running with to avoid milkman’s attentions, is so unlike other men in his open attitude to women that he would be in danger if he wasn’t also good at fighting. He’s the one who warns her of the dangers of walking-while-reading. Despite what she had thought about him, he proves himself to be at least as much of an expert as she is in the arbitrary ways that reputations are created.
A superb set-piece scene illustrates it. When her maybe-boyfriend comes to own an engine-part from an iconic (named) English car, his friends hear of it and come to see it while the narrator is there. She is practically invisible, although they occasionally make polite noises in her direction, and their conversation goes as you would expect. We think we know where it’s going, as they make cooing noises over the Bentley supercharger—it’s men and their cars, which we’ve already had a lot of with maybe-boyfriend—but no. One of them complains about the flag, or, doesn’t complain exactly, but can’t help mentioning how it might be taken that there’s such a symbol of oppression in the house. It slowly emerges that there is no flag, but everybody knows the original cars had one painted on them, far be it from him to say, but…. And so he goes on, the others going a bit quiet, until one of them has had enough of his innuendoes. He punches him on the nose, and nobody is happy. They do their best to make a joke of it after he’s gone, but they all know that this will go further. My god. And so here is somebody else the narrator can be linked to, maybe (i.e. definitely), and this place is never safe at the best of times.
One last thing for now. I’m reading this at the moment when the ‘jihadi bride’ Shamima Begum is trying to get back into Britain with her newborn child. In the mindset of an entirely different culture from the one Burns is writing about, she’s a monster. Yes, commentators are saying, they know she was only fifteen when she decided to go and live with Isis, where she was married off to have three children fathered on her. She might (etc. etc.) but she’s of age now, and do we really want…? Of course not, they say, and her citizenship has been revoked. It isn’t an easy case but, like the ones we’re reading about in Milkman, a lot of people are pretending that it is. Suddenly Burns’s novel seems very timely.
To the end of Chapter 3…
…which is nearly 100 pages long, despite only covering the events of one summer evening. I said before that this novel isn’t really about plot, although things are beginning to move on. Not least, we’re getting new characters introduced, either during this crucial evening or by way of a retracing of steps along the labyrinthine path of one of this novel’s back-stories. That’s how I’m beginning to think of Burns’s method. At the start of the chapter, we’d been told—how does it go?—‘Third time of the milkman was when he appeared not long after my French evening class.’ But he doesn’t appear until she’s taken 33 pages on explaining, or explicating, or unpacking (or whatever) the full significance of it.
I’ve already mentioned the French teacher’s lesson about the problems that come with having a closed mind, and the narrator’s mother’s inability, or refusal, to accept any questioning of anything—and there’s more stuff before he’s almost magically appeared, unnoticed, at her side in the ten-minute area. Before, and during their very one-sided conversation, we get more back-story. There’s Somebody McSomebody, the one doing the threatening in the novel’s opening sentence, there are the ‘renouncer’ women—or the women of the renouncer men—who, before this third meeting, have already begun to explain to her what her life will be like as one of them. This is a flashback scene in the ladies’ toilet of a downtown club, and it’s one of the novel’s set pieces…. I’ll come back later to her encounter with the milkman, and how this this fill-in-the-details-as-you-tell-it narrator stretches it out to another 30-odd pages.
But first, I want to fast-forward to one of those new characters, a man who comes to her aid after she’s been left on her own again. This is the real milkman, a man whose purpose in the chapter, and maybe in the novel as a whole, is to be a voice of sanity. Inevitably, the narrator can’t describe him as that, but as ‘the man who didn’t love anybody, one of our district’s official beyond-the-pales.’ She describes his bad temper, his reputation for never having a good word to say about anybody… etc. But something we’ve started to understand is that when this narrator describes something, she, the now much older narrator, describes it as she, with her blinkered, non-sunset-seeing eyes, perceived it at the age of eighteen. He soon proves himself to be nothing like that first description of him, but caring, helpful, and sceptical enough about the behaviour of the extremists to call them out about it. I suppose it’s Burns’s way of revealing to us the slow dawning of realisation on her narrator’s part, and this unpacking—more unpacking—of layers of prejudice usually works.
But she, Burns, doesn’t always trust herself and seems to feel the need to spell it out. After a page and more, during which we’ve had plenty of time to see his real worth, we get this: ‘This inability of the community to acknowledge his good deeds was because his reputation for general all-round unfriendliness had become so fixed in the district consciousness that it would have taken an enormous explosion of conscious effort to shift that particular bit of hearsay on to the truth.’ That’s a lot of words to explain what we’ve already worked out for ourselves….
But never mind that. The real milkman, a genuine friend of her mother’s by the sound of it—the narrator is presented as obtuse enough not to have ever thought about why he bothers—wants to help her, the narrator. He mentions some women in the district that she might go and talk to, and she spends even a lot of pages on the back-story of why he has no clue why they are the last people she would talk to. As soon as she refers to them as the ‘issue women’, while wondering whether he’s ‘crazy as well as blind and deaf and dumb to what was said about these women,’ we know there’s bound to be something interesting about them. Their story, over several pages, is Burns’s way of opening out some of the issues in the novel. These are ordinary women who have had their consciousness raised to the point where they are willing to speak out against the renouncers’ complacently macho behaviour. They have been threatened with death, and the ‘traditional’ women in the area hate the way they interfere with their own ways of dealing with the men—as we see when they get the men to withdraw their threats, by offering a face-saving deal….
One of the things that Burns is doing in this long chapter, obliquely, is questioning the routine sexism of this community. The ‘issue women’ offer a recognisable alternative to the set-in-stone attitudes of women like her mother, and the voice of reason—the real milkman—hasn’t finished yet. He brings up the matter of the education of the narrator’s three ‘wee sisters’ aged (I think) six, seven and eight. Everybody, including the narrator, regards their behaviour as eccentric, but her back-story descriptions of them reveal how super-intelligent they are. Once, to the horror of the rest of the family, they somehow got hold of a selection of English newspapers. Hush, older sisters, they said, we’re trying to understand their viewpoint. The older ones close the curtains before anyone else can see what’s going on.
When the narrator realises that he’s implying it’s about time she started to do what their mother is too set in her traditional ways to even understand about these little sisters, she resents it. Is she supposed to be their mother now—just when she’s been considering moving in with maybe-boyfriend? She’s interested by the fact that she’s even having this thought, having decided, she imagined, that she definitely wouldn’t be moving in with him. She’s had a lot of shifts in the head during the few weeks covered in the novel so far. But…
…she hasn’t in any way sorted out what she thinks about sex, and sexual attitudes. In this late 1970s city, some unmarried couples live together. The traditional families have a name for the beyond-the-pale area where they go to live, the red-light street, and the narrator thought she had decided it was a step too far. And what about maybe-boyfriend’s tendency to hoard roomfuls of engine parts and other bits of cars? I mention this now because there’s something so visceral about her response to her third meeting with milkman that there has to be something going on. We—both the reader and the narrator, if I’m right—assume her reaction is panic. Maybe it is that first time, when a known renouncer talks to her from his car, or whatever vehicle it is…. But this third time it’s something else.
There he suddenly is, and ‘First thing that happened was again I got those spine shivers, those scrabblings, the shuttlings, all that shiddery-shudderiness inside me, from the bottom of my backbone right into my legs.’ OK, we’ll just let the geography of those intrusive little—or not so little—feelings sink in for a while. And there the milkman is, with his insinuations about the dangers that lie all around, the maybe-boyfriend and that flag of his that suddenly seems to be common knowledge, the offer of a lift whenever she wants—he’s noticed, of course, that she’s changed her bus routes and running routes, undoubtedly knows that she’s avoiding him. Are these visceral responses to do with fear? That, despite her best efforts, she’s in much too far to get out?
I honestly don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s beautifully described. As his innuendo-strewn little chat comes to an unexpected end—other men arrive, no doubt other renouncers, as magically as he did himself—‘here I was, in it. And there he was, in it, and by this time I’d got so worked up that I’d reached that state of agitated emotion which easily brought on fractures of the psyche—where suddenly I might say “No!” or “Fuck off!” or scream or….’ Or throw the cat’s head she’s been holding in a cloth, left over from that wartime bomb. Burns loves surreal little details like that, that become symbols of something unspeakable. And she decides the real milkman’s all right when he promises to bury it for her, and she trusts him to do it.
Is it a kind of crazy infatuation? She’s so dazed after the encounter, and before the helpful milkman’s arrival, that she focuses on the men who had appeared, now having moved off towards the city centre, no doubt co-ordinating their routes…. She’s somehow entangled with them and their lives and, in italics, in a paragraph of its own: You’re a mad person. She’s had those thoughts of the renouncer girlfriends and groupies, and their helpful hints in the toilets that felt like an ambush. She’s also been thinking of Somebody McSomebody, and how he’s given up his pointless pursuit of her. He pretends to be a fighter, but she knows she isn’t. And why should she mention that if such things don’t matter? And, in the second sentence of the novel, she says of the death of the milkman, ‘I did not care about the shooting of this man.’ This, we know by now, cannot possibly be true. But there’s half the novel to go before we’ll find out how she really feels about it.
Lots of other stuff I haven’t got time for. Deaths, including a brother’s suicide, in Somebody McSomebody’s family. Her own father’s depressions, that her mother always dismissed as a kind of self-indulgence. Deaths and disgraces in her own family…. The emotional toll of the events of these times, which she seems to mention almost as an aside, are intolerable.
Chapters 4 and 5
More deaths including, nearly, the narrator’s own. What I’ve only just come to realise is that what Anna Burns does is a kind of magical realism. It’s also soap opera, history, melodrama…. I toyed with the idea of calling it melodramagic realism, but that would be as ridiculous as a character who is tolerated by the community despite having the seriously antisocial habit of poisoning people, seemingly at random. She’s the girl-who’s-really-a-woman—I think that’s what they call her—aged about 30 but so tiny and mentally challenged in so many ways that she’s treated not so much as beyond-the-pale as beyond all human understanding. The paramilitary renouncers have issued her with a series of final warnings, but everyone is shocked when…
…she is found in an alley with her throat cut. Nobody is admitting to it, but we know before the narrator realises who probably ordered it. It’s not because she’d just poisoned the man who had been Hitler—the narrator’s shorthand way of describing the man that ‘pills girl’ had accused of serial atrocities in a former life, the usual motive for one of her mysteriously deft poisonings—it’s because she’d poisoned… guess who. This happens maybe half-way through Chapter 5, and most of the rest of it is the narrator’s superbly surreal description of what her (very) near-death experience feels like from the inside. It’s only when she finally comes up to the surface after four days of delirium and/or unconsciousness that she hears that pills girl is dead—and it’s only when she is treated with the kind of anathema we might imagine to be reserved for predatory serial rapist-murderers, as she tries to buy chips in the local chip-shop, that she realises milkman must have done it. This isn’t the sort of killing the community is used to, this is the sort of murder you get over-the-water, as her mother almost hysterically puts it, based on the vices that are as common as sneezing there. Nobody understands it at all.
Is it magic realism? I remember wondering whether it’s stream of consciousness—and the answer to both of those is, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Impossible things happen in the ways they do in magic realist fictions, but Burns has taken it in such a bizarre new direction with this narrator who is both trying to offer a sense of the everyday madness of the times she’s describing and having to piece the reality of things together as she goes along. It’s complex, often as frustrating for the reader as it seems to be for the narrator—it can become repetitive as she tries to fine-tune a nuance of absurdity—and sometimes completely disorientating. I said at the beginning I’ve never read anything like it, and I haven’t changed my mind.
Other things, as briefly as I can—I want to get to the end of this now, and there are still 100 pages left to read. To start at the end, which you know about, and working back…. Pill girls is the sister of longest-friend, the only person the narrator can confide in and whom she meets for one of their increasingly rare intimate chats in the first part of the chapter. In fact, as the conversation continues, it becomes clear that it isn’t at all what the narrator had hoped for—her optimistic account of the relief she feels when she tells longest-friend the truth of recent events is soon punctured by her realisation that longest-friend thinks she’s a fool. She’s also a powerful figure in the renouncer hierarchy—we hear that both she and the husband she hasn’t married yet will be shot over the next couple of years or so—and sees the whole milkman thing she’s obsessing over as a sort of irrelevance.
Longest-friend, in fact, really does seem to have the narrator’s welfare in mind when she explains, just as third brother-in-law had done on their first run in the early chapters, that the reading-while-walking has got to stop. It isn’t just the habit, it’s the closed mindset we know is really the narrator’s biggest form of defence because she has explained a lot of it in the previous chapter. Except, this being the kind of narrative it is, she hadn’t exactly gauged it right then, and she still doesn’t now. She’s added details about the ways she blanks out all the questions people ask her with either an I don’t know or what she starts to call a numbness of response. We don’t know if she actually says ‘I don’t know,’ or whether whatever she does say amounts to the same thing, but what we do know is that she thinks this is to protect herself from milkman, who has been intruding more and more often into her daily life. And, as longest-friend insists, she’s totally wrong. She’s been doing it since long, long before milkman ever appeared.
This is interesting. She is no conventionally unreliable narrator, she is a narrator who is doing her very best to give an account of how she only slowly comes to terms with the disastrous results of her attempts to manage own her life in circumstances that are far beyond anybody’s limits of toleration. The preposterousness of the everyday makes it plausible, in this universe, for a mother not only to prefer to believe her daughter is pregnant than poisoned, long after the truth is obvious, but also to come out with a thesaurus list of euphemisms for pregnancy whilst accusing her. Nobody speaks in a language we recognise, although we somehow recognise where it’s coming from. This is a bleakly satirical version of a place we know to have existed.
There’s also Chapter 4, which is about the two men in the narrator’s life. Milkman has become such a ubiquitous presence—strange renouncer men accost her offering lifts, telling her she’d be doing them a favour if she accepted—that she thinks all her own behaviour is in reaction to him. We saw in that third meeting in Chapter 3 how visceral it had all become for her, and it’s a measure of her own obsession that she imagines the onset of the horrible physical effects of the poisoning to be her body’s reaction to the threat he poses. Chapter 4 is when she tells us about her closing-off from meaningful engagement with the community, the one we know is really an almost lifelong habit.
Maybe-boyfriend takes up a lot of space in this chapter too. In her account of how difficult he’s starting to find her—she’s shutting things down for all sorts of reasons, including her genuine desire to protect him from milkman—we also learn how bizarre things have become for him in his own community. They don’t live in the same districts, and he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t want him to come anywhere near. It’s partly, genuinely, to prevent her mother’s crashing interference in their lives, but it’s far more complicated than that, and nearly-boyfriend tries to hazard other reasons. He knows nothing of milkman and her, and she wants to keep it that way. She definitely doesn’t want him to know that milkman knows about him, and keeps dropping hints about how people who drive cars sometimes get blown up….
There’s another of those darkly comic set pieces that seems to happen around nearly-boyfriend. The paramilitaries send a squad to threaten him over the supercharger, complete with masks and guns. While he is trying to fend them off on the doorstep—he’s as terrified of their ongoing threats as she is of milkman—a ‘statelet’ official arrives with a plaque to screw to the outside wall. His parents, as we learnt in an early chapter, left him and his brothers to become world-famous ballroom dancers—and ambassadors for peace and reconciliation between the communities. The reasons why maybe-boyfriend could not possibly allow this to happen, how an action that seems harmless to the ham-fisted powers that be would have terrible repercussions for the individual, are like those behind the decision not to get the narrator to hospital when she’s actually dying. Going to the hospital, like going to the police, opens the individual to such intrusive scrutiny by the state that people would rather die. The local women who administer the necessary purges to the narrator are part of an underground health service the state knows nothing of. And that, of course, is how the community wants to keep it.
Chapters 6 and 7—to the end
There’s more closure in this novel than I was expecting. Which is all right if you like closure, I guess… although for me, the most memorable sections come long before such a thing seems remotely possible. Times like the third encounter with milkman, when the physical and psychological effects of her fear and loathing—if that’s what they are—bring the narrator to a kind of existential standstill. There’s another moment like this in Chapter 6, as we realise that things are finally coming to a head. The narrator has suffered an unexpected kind of closure with maybe-boyfriend—tell you later—and milkman stops his van near where she’s walking in a state of near-stupefaction. And reader, she gets in. She reminds us that this is exactly what she was never going to do, that longest-friend has told her she must never, ever do it—but, maybe not so surprisingly, she does it anyway. ‘There was no tumult. No emotion. Here was this thing happened for always I knew it was going to happen, for it had been telling me for ages it was coming and that it was going to happen.’ Her usually elegant melding of the local syntax with carefully judged cadences has gone. ‘Here was this thing happened for always I knew it was going to happen’ shows a mind spinning away from good sense as she reaches the end of the road. She’s ground to another existential full-stop.
Milkman is as fastidious as always not to put any overt pressure on her. He looks straight ahead as he drives, doesn’t touch her, doesn’t crow over his victory. He doesn’t need to, and they both know it. By the time he’s dropping her outside her own house—something she never let maybe-boyfriend do—he’s telling her to be ready at seven next evening. ‘I could wear something lovely, he said. “Not trousers. Something lovely. Some lovely, womanly, elegant, nice dress”’. That’s how the chapter ends. She’s his now.
And then she isn’t. Maybe that’s the problem for me. We’ve always known he’s going to get shot, and—how does Jane Austen put it in Northanger Abbey? Readers ‘will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ This narrator doesn’t put it like that, but by the end of the next chapter—the end of the novel—there’s definitely some kind of felicity, perfect or not: ‘for a moment, just a moment, I almost nearly laughed.’ In fact milkman, two months after he began the relentless pursuit of the narrator that she always knew would end in her own surrender, is shot the very morning after she does just that. She never will have to be ready when he arrives in one of his nice cars, never will have to put on that nice dress. You couldn’t make it up.
Except you could, of course, and Burns has spent the whole novel making up whatever she likes. Not a problem. Once we’re into melodramatic magic realist soap opera—and the soap elements have only become more predominant in these chapters—it’s not about plausibility. I’m not sure what it is about, but I do know that to have so many loose ends tied up that the narrator is ‘almost nearly laughing’ by the end seems… what? A bit unnecessary. Some of it, admittedly, is down to a certain amount of welcome growing up on her part—she’s got the message about not pretending to be in a 19th Century bubble as she walks the streets, and when she goes to see third brother-in-law she chooses her words a little more carefully than before—but most of it is down to a kindly author. I’ve mentioned the murder that happens the morning before she’s about to be compromised beyond redemption. OK. But there’s also…
…Somebody McSomebody, who moves in on her as soon as milkman is out of the picture, soundly beaten up by women in the ladies’ toilet he’d stupidly chosen to be the location for that gun-in-chest moment we read about in the opening sentence. The women also tell their menfolk, who put the frighteners on him. (They don’t go to town on him—he’s the last of his poor mother’s children to be left alive, and she’s close enough to a breakdown already without more pain inflicted on him by one of the paramilitaries’ courts.) What else? The real milkman had been shot in error by the incompetent state hit-squad—the renouncer-sympathising papers have a field-day on the ‘butcher, the baker and candlestick-maker’ they’ve already mistaken for their man with the trade-related surname—but… he doesn’t die. It turns out that not only is this a welcome reprieve for a good man, it leads to a train of events resulting in the narrator’s mother spending as many nights at his house as she does in her own. Which in turn leads to the narrator having to become a better sister to the wee sisters as a matter of course.
And then there’s maybe-boyfriend. In that set-piece scene when his friends and neighbours come to see the supercharger, there’s a particular friend who I haven’t even mentioned before. I took him to be little more than local colour, one of the many eccentrics who make this community, however terrible, also entertaining. He’s chef, a friend who likes cooking so much it’s a joke in this macho world, and whose only concern during the supercharger scene is who’s staying for dinner. Everybody teases him about the beautiful food he cooks, whilst enjoying every mouthful. Well… he isn’t just local colour. After an almost-relationship-almost-ending row on the phone, the narrator goes to see maybe-boyfriend to put things on a better footing. She hears chef talking to his imaginary sous-chef—another of his funny little quirks—but no. As she gets to the door unseen—the amount she sees and hears while remaining completely invisible is worthy of one of the Hardy novels she deplores—she realises that chef is tending to the injuries just suffered by his lover. He’s also making sure almost-boyfriend doesn’t realise he used one of his sharpest knives on at least one of the attackers…. By the time she leaves, stunned and amazed, they’re going through what sounds like a well-practised routine of making plans to emigrate together.
This is perfect in all sorts of ways, because it shows how well-crafted and well-plotted this novel is… the one I said wasn’t about plot. That was a long time ago, and if in these chapters Burns has some of the story arcs being resolved a little too neatly for my taste, this one is a real revelation for the narrator. It’s also a genuine-seeming lesson in a life she’s been taking for granted for far too long. She’s been making knowing comments about how it’s a cherished custom in the community, even when there is a perfect love available for them, for everybody to end up marrying what she calls the wrong spouse. Her mother’s response as a young woman to real milkman’s defiance of custom—by renouncing all other lovers after the right one took up holy orders—was to marry the wrong man. The narrator’s ‘da’ was a depressive that ‘ma’ could never cope with. Oldest sister, who failed to marry her Mr Right for some reason or other, married the Mr Wrong who became the appalling first brother-in-law with his predatory habit of loading sexual innuendo into any conversation with young girls. (Another tied-up loose end is his satisfying come-uppance in the final chapter when the renouncers finally beat him up.) And then there’s the narrator…
…who, finally realises that she herself was in danger of becoming maybe-boyfriend’s wrong spouse. What makes people do this thing is all to do with fear. Usually, it’s fear of happiness, fear of spoiling what seems like a perfectly happy relationship through marriage. Expectations are low in this community because happiness is simply not in the mindset. If it turns up (like, I suppose, those non-blue colours in the sky) it’s important to pretend it can’t really be there, and do something to prove that. Maybe-boyfriend’s fear is different, of course. Even the narrator, in the pre-regenerate persona that Burns has endowed her with, has been making fun of his unnatural taste for sunsets and cooking. Cooking! He’s nearly as bad as chef, she implies during what turns out to be their final row…. So we can imagine what the community at large would make of an overtly gay relationship. His relationship with the narrator, she decides, was never any more than camouflage.
There’s a lot going on, and Burns pitches it perfectly. But however well-crafted this novel is—and we know that it is—it’s important that the narrative comes to us by way of a consciousness that not only starts by getting it wrong all the time, but is somehow able to chart its own slow, imperfect journey towards some kind of self-awareness. Margaret Atwood is the only other novelist I can think of who can convey this kind of uncertain, blundering self-realisation with such subtlety, for instance in Surfacing, 1972. Burns’s narrator never ceases to be an often callow product of her closed-off community, but we’re beginning to think by the end that she might be OK eventually. She’s able to write this, isn’t she?
And it’s such a dense novel I feel I’ve let a lot out. We know that pills-girl is dead, but her younger sister, the ‘shiny’, hopeful one who didn’t follow the path of renouncership like the other sister, longest-friend, tells of the letter from her that she discovered before she herself was almost fatally poisoned. It’s all about fear. It’s clear that pills-girl is living through some kind of psychosis, but it’s to do with her terror of such a dysfunctional community. It is so bizarrely rigged that anyone who doesn’t conform to norms of attractiveness, and doesn’t understand the subtleties of acceptable behaviour, is doomed. She’s just trying to find a way for her own life to be possible, however bonkers it might seem to outsiders—and dangerous. Meanwhile the ones who do know how things work, the ordinary women of the community who keep it all moving despite the men’s stupidities, are just as imprisoned. They might all ostracise the issues women but we know who’s right in the long run. Subtle protests dressed up to like acquiescence are all well and good, but it’s never going to stop the idiocy.
There are only two satisfactory men in this novel (not including chef and maybe-boyfriend), and maybe it’s another sign of hope that the narrator has a close connection to both of them. Real milkman really does seem to have chosen her mother to be the one, out of the many contenders, to end his decades-long flight from love. And third brother-in-law, the one who has his own ways of equalising the balance of power between men and women, is the one she’s with, out running again, as the novel ends. Maybe I should stop being cynical about the implausible outbreak of happy resolutions in the final chapter—even the half-blinded, formerly shiny sister of pills girl gets her ex-lover back, when he decides he isn’t going to stick with his marriage to the wrong spouse. Maybe there’s hope after all.