Re­vis­it­ing Anna Burns’s bold, ter­ri­fy­ing, funny and pro­found first two nov­els

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SEÁN HE­WITT

Af­ter the suc­cess of Milk­man, Anna Burns’s so-called dif­fi­cult (yet best-sell­ing) Booker win­ner, her first two nov­els, No Bones (2001) and

Lit­tle Con­struc­tions (2007) have been reis­sued by 4th Es­tate, at £8.99. With over a decade be­tween her sec­ond novel and Milk­man, there has been an in­evitable ma­tur­ing in Burns’s style, though these first two nov­els are bold, ter­ri­fy­ing, funny and pro­found, and it is a bless­ing that they will now be brought back into the pub­lic eye.

No Bones was highly ac­claimed on its release, be­com­ing a fi­nal­ist for the Orange Prize and win­ning the Winifred Holtby Me­mo­rial Prize, and it is cer­tainly worth some re­newed at­ten­tion, not only for the ways in which it di­a­logues with

Milk­man but for its own mer­its, too. Amelia Lovett and her school­friends await the end of the Trou­bles, hop­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, for nor­malcy. At the be­gin­ning, Burns in­tro­duces a tragic irony that per­vades the novel, a Bil­dungsro­man. Each of its chap­ters is set in a dif­fer­ent year of the Trou­bles, and time is a con­stant an­tag­o­nist. All the girls in the novel want is for the vi­o­lence, a source of cu­rios­ity at first, and then a per­va­sive and in­sid­i­ous bleak­ness, to end.

“The Trou­bles started on a Thurs­day. At six o’clock at night. And seven whole days later, for Amelia was count­ing, she could hardly be­lieve it, for here they were, still go­ing on.”

Dead bod­ies

This is a world full of dead bod­ies, of chil­dren sell­ing rub­ber bul­lets back to sol­diers, teenagers writ­ing po­ems in school full of fe­male tor­sos float­ing in rivers, women be­ing beaten, where a mis­car­ried baby is car­ried in its am­ni­otic sack by a con­fused and griev­ing mother and Amelia de­scends into anorexia and psy­chosis. But it is also a world of pranks, ban­ter and in­ti­macy. If the scenes are oc­ca­sion­ally car­toon­ish, or grotesque, Burns of­ten man­ages to rein them in with mo­ments of care­fully ob­served hu­man­ity.

There is, too, some­thing of the nov­els of Sa­muel Beck­ett in Burns’s keen eye for ab­sur­dity and tragi­com­edy amid an in­creas­ingly bleak land­scape. Her con­jur­ing of school scenes, of fam­ily ar­gu­ments, of ran­dom acts of vi­o­lence, is by turns ten­der and painful. Her prose is bril­liant, shock­ing and ut­terly re­lent­less. Though the short chap­ters, which cover a long scope of years, might make the reader lose en­ergy in places, suf­fer­ing a con­stant bar­rage, they are ef­fec­tive in their to­tal­ity.

Con­tin­u­ing her skill for punchy open­ing lines that set the whole novel ring­ing like a tun­ing fork, Lit­tle Con­struc­tions, Burns’s sec­ond novel, opens: “There are no dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women. No dif­fer­ences. Ex­cept one. Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun.” Be­gin­ning as a woman bursts into a gun shop in the town of Tip­toe Floor­board, Lit­tle Con­struc­tions is con­vo­luted and brave, and tells the sto­ries of a fam­ily of vic­tims and crim­i­nals in the chill­ing and blackly comedic voice that has be­come Burns’s stock in trade. Though not draw­ing on the Belfast di­alect of No Bones and Milk­man, the nar­ra­tive is still dis­tinctly Burns’s own.

Al­though this sec­ond novel con­tin­ues Burns’s in­ter­est in vi­o­lence, and in ret­ri­bu­tion, it is not a his­tor­i­cal novel in the same sense as No Bones. What some read­ers have found dis­ori­ent­ing or dif­fi­cult about Milk­man, ex­ac­er­bated by the lack of proper names for char­ac­ters (who are re­ferred to as, for ex­am­ple, “mid­dle sis­ter”, or “may­be­boyfriend”), finds a prece­dent in Lit­tle Con­struc­tions, in which all the women have names be­gin­ning with J: Jetty, Ja­nine, Joshu­a­tine, Janet, Jennifer. This makes the novel’s early scenes hard to fol­low in places, but adds to the sur­re­al­ism of the nar­ra­tive and re­in­forces its sense of the de­hu­man­is­ing, de­per­son­al­is­ing ef­fects of ran­dom vi­o­lence.

Para­mil­i­tary gang

Al­though not ex­plic­itly a “Trou­bles novel”, Burns satirises the cliches of that genre with gusto. The fic­tional town is lauded over by a woman with a Kalash­nikov; a para­mil­i­tary gang haunts the streets; tor­tur­ers use Ouija boards in or­der to iden­tify traitors to the cause. As with No Bones, Burns’s en­ergy and bois­ter­ous­ness over­shoot the mark some­times, with the novel’s struc­ture (which can leave the reader dis­ori­ented) com­bin­ing with a me­an­der­ing and er­ratic nar­ra­tor to pro­duce a novel at once ex­plo­sive and mad­den­ing. This is a tricksy, play­ful but also jum­bled book. With no de­sire to be a re­al­ist novel, Lit­tle Con­struc­tions re­quires im­mer­sion and per­se­ver­ance from the reader, but (like Milk­man) it re­pays the debt.

Read­ers have dis­proved many crit­ics who have lam­basted this year’s Man Booker win­ner as too dif­fi­cult to sell in any great num­bers. Ap­par­ently a “bold choice” for the win, Milk­man has gone on to sell 350,000 copies with Faber (Burns’s Bri­tish pub­lisher), and is pub­lished in the US by Gray­wolf Press. In No Bones and Lit­tle Con­struc­tions, we find many of the things some crit­ics have found frus­trat­ing about Burns’s writ­ing, but read­ers will also recog­nise the brav­ery, hu­mour and dis­tinc­tion of this writer. Af­ter read­ing Milk­man, it is to be hoped that the pub­lic will turn to these ear­lier nov­els, which are also chal­leng­ing, res­o­nant and re­ward­ing, and de­serv­ing of re­newed at­ten­tion.

Anna Burns: keen eye for tragi­com­edy

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