Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - TANYA SWEENEY

Ann Burns

Faber & Faber, pa­per­back, 351 pages, €13.99

As open­ing lines go, you’d be hard pressed to bet­ter Milk­man’s start­ing pis­tol: “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.”

Eigh­teen-year-old Mid­dle sis­ter, our nar­ra­tor, lives in a dystopian fu­ture in an un­named city that seems very sim­i­lar to a Belfast ad­dled with sec­tar­ian ten­sions. It’s an area where what religion you are is im­por­tant, a place where be­ing called Nigel, Ja­son, Jasper, Win­ston or any other re­fined English name is ef­fec­tively banned. A place where peo­ple of in­ter­est are sin­gled out and pho­tographed on the street. Though it’s in many ways an un­re­mark­able town, it’s small and claus­tro­pho­bic, with an active and busy bush tele­graph. Here, women are put un­der cur­few and gos­sip and hearsay is a lifeblood for its denizens. Con­se­quently, the main aim is to blend in and live as or­di­nar­ily as “the po­lit­i­cal prob­lems will al­low”.

On Mid­dle sis­ter’s ‘side of the road’, the re­nounc­ers-of-the-state are he­roes, good guys who have iconic sta­tus in the com­mu­nity; their groupies are con­cerned with the prized po­si­tion of be­ing the one and only woman for their man. Mid­dle sis­ter’s fam­ily worry about her edg­ing to­wards this ter­ri­tory.

“At 18 I was never go­ing to ad­mit that, re­gard­ing sex, there was an aw­ful lot that I didn’t un­der­stand about it,” says Mid­dle sis­ter. “Th­ese women — through their ap­pear­ance, their words, the very way they moved their bod­ies — also lik­ing to be watch­ing, mov­ing and con­duct­ing th­ese bod­ies — were threat­en­ing to present sex to me as some­thing un­struc­tured, some­thing un­con­trol­lable, but could I not be older than 18 be­fore the re­al­i­sa­tion of the con­fu­sion of the mas­sive sub­text of sex and the con­traries of sex should come upon me and un­cer­tain me?” Well, quite.

Mid­dle sis­ter is in a ten­ta­tive re­la­tion­ship with nearly-boyfriend — im­ma­ture, un­worldly — and at the out­set of the book is at­tempt­ing to quell ru­mours that she is hav­ing an af­fair with Milk­man, a para­mil­i­tary who is 41. “I did not like the milk­man and had been fright­ened and con­fused by his pur­su­ing and hav­ing an af­fair with me.”

Mid­dle sis­ter and Milk­man even­tu­ally do have an en­counter, though she can’t for the life of her fig­ure out how it all came about. She is des­per­ate to keep her fam­ily in the dark about it all, but her brother-in-law soon puts paid to this idea when he tells his wife, the book’s third sis­ter. Thanks to his med­dle­some in­put, the ru­mours soon

Those who stick with Burns’ hec­tic, streamof-con­scious­ness writ­ing are more than re­warded

take on a life of their own. A rogue’s gallery of char­ac­ters — tablets girl, chef, the afore­men­tioned Some­body McSome­body — edge the book to­wards its grisly de­noue­ment.

From the out­set, Milk­man is de­liv­ered in a breath­less, hec­tic, glo­ri­ous tor­rent. The pace doesn’t let up for a sin­gle mo­ment. It doesn’t make for an easy, nor an im­me­di­ately ab­sorb­ing read. Any­one ex­pect­ing ac­ces­si­ble char­ac­ters or a clear-cut, neatly mapped out plot will be left want­ing. The ac­tion moves hither and thither, forc­ing the reader to piece Mid­dle sis­ter’s story to­gether with small, scat­ter­gun jig­saw pieces. Add to this the very pal­pa­ble ten­sions and anx­i­eties of Mid­dle sis­ter’s world, and Milk­man can some­times feel like a nerve-jan­gling read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence; ex­haust­ing, even. Yet those who stick with Ann Burns’ hec­tic, stream-of-con­scious­ness writ­ing, not dis­sim­i­lar to that of Eimear McBride or Flann O’Brien, are more than re­warded.

Belfast-born, Sus­sex-based Burns has al­ready writ­ten of the con­flict in the North to won­drous ef­fect in her dar­ing de­but novel No Bones, short­listed in 2001 for the Or­ange Prize. Lit­tle Con­struc­tions (2007) ex­plored the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of the Trou­bles on its young pro­tag­o­nist.

Her writ­ing has been de­scribed as “point-blank po­etry”, and rightly so. Her grasp on Mid­dle sis­ter’s voice is so con­fi­dent, and the tex­tures of the en­vi­ron­ment, with its pol­i­tics both big and small, are a thing to be­hold. It’s an as­tute, ex­quis­ite ac­count of North­ern Ire­land’s so­cial land­scape, but Milk­man is much more than that, too. It’s also a com­ing-of-age story with flecks of dark hu­mour, yet at other points it’s a damn­ing por­trait of rape cul­ture, and how women are often re­garded in com­mu­ni­ties like this one. Be­cause of this, Milk­man is a po­tent and ur­gent book, with more than a hint of barely con­tained fury.

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