Milkman

Milkman by Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and is the first book by a Northern Irish author to have ever done so.

The novel follows the experience of a teenage girl in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, as she is singled out and preyed upon by an older man. She is forced to endure these attentions, even though they frighten her, due to the man’s high status position among the local paramilitary, or “renouncers”. Even though she tries to avoid him, the community views her as the “loose woman” seducing a married man, and she is spurned because of it. I wouldn’t say that this novel is specifically about the Troubles, as the main protagonist is uninterested in the conflict or the politics and takes the tribalism and violence as an unquestionable part of her ordinary life.

Reading this novel was a somewhat claustrophobic experience. The escalating tension and danger makes it a bit of a thriller. The pervasive network of gossips in the small-town setting have the stifling effect of being constantly watched – similar to Big Brother in 1984 or the Eyes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Additionally, the main protagonist seems to have very little agency, things happen to her rather than because of her, and even when she does act in a way to improve her situation this is twisted and reframed by the local gossips so that she ends up appearing to act in alignment with their assumptions anyway.

There is also an increasing sense of absurdity or surrealism in the norms, logic and judgements of the people in this community that can be read as Burn’s darkly mocking these times. For example, the painstaking taking apart of phones to “check for bugs” every time anyone makes a call – despite no one actually knowing what a bug looks like or where it would be. Further, the Renouncers are portrayed as being dangerous, but also to some degree as being inept and bumbling; and many of the community’s precautions and actions against the country-over-the-water are depicted as being comically petty. Altogether, these absurdities add a note of humour to the novel while increasing the sense of suffocation, as though it is a very bad and inescapable dream where you’re the only sane person.

An interesting feature of this novel is that there are next to no proper nouns: no place names or personal names. Characters are indicated by their relationship to whoever is talking to or about them. Our protagonist is known as Middle Sister, Middle Daughter, Maybe-Girlfriend or Longest Friend, depending on who is referring to her. Her harasser is known as Milkman, which is assumed to be a nickname (since he’s not actually a milkman) until it is revealed after his death that it was his real last name. The lack of personal names increases the sense of the network or web, that is the local community where people are only delineated based on their relationships with other people in this community. Indicating that outside of these relationships, the individual characters have no identity at all.

The slow building of tension in this book is masterful and the bleak, blunt prose is uniquely elegant. It provides clear insight into the panic and powerlessness of a woman pursued by unwanted attentions in a world of double standards as well as a stomach-turning image of the everyday violence and trauma of Trouble era Ireland. Truly a stunning novel.

The change at the end of the novel, after the death of Milkman, feels like a breath of fresh air that highlights through juxtaposition how trapped you had felt reading the preceding chapters. I found that this quotation summarised well this sentiment as experienced by Middle Sister:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man. Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.

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Foreign Soil

I have begun 2019 with a flexible commitment, not quite a resolution, to attend finally to a growing list of “to-reads” that I’ve been accumulating and neglecting over the last year or so. I have also decided that I want to be a lot more active on this blog, largely for my own use as I find it so frustrating how the details of a book and my accompanying opinions of it are often forgotten soon after finishing it. I find these posts help me not only to consciously think through what I’ve read, helping me to appreciate it more and possibly more likely to recall it later; but also as a quick memory-aid.

Towards this end, I have finished the first book of the year and am jumping straight in to this post!

This book is Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian author of Afro-Caribbean descent, and it comes highly awarded and recommended. It is a breathtaking collection of short stories, a cacophonous chorus of diverse voices and dialects that takes on very turbulent issues ranging from the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, to sexual politics, LGBTQ+ experiences, terrorism, child soldiers, immigration, and racism. Clarke’s treatment of these narratives is delicate yet uncompromisingly direct and honest.

At first reading these stories I was scrabbling for a linking thread; the segments immerse you in settings, voices and characters so diverse from each other and so quickly that it gives you whiplash. This collection would not be recommended to people who can’t tolerate open-endings and cliffhangers. Each story ends right at the height of the drama, and Clarke’s style is so intoxicating and enveloping that you almost scream in frustration each time you are wrenched out of the story world and into the next one. Yet, this next story, each time is exactly as captivating as the last, and draws you in so quickly that soon you are invested in the new characters to the extent of having forgotten the last. A true roller-coaster ride.

This pattern and structuring is somewhat explained by the final story (“The Sukiyaki Book Club”) that jumps into the perspective of a single mother in Melbourne, who carves out time to write and submit her openings to publishers. We swap between the perspective of this woman, as she is writing a new short story, and the perspective of the character in this fledgling story. We find that so far all of her submissions have been rejected, and that she has kept their rejection letters. These letters are generous in praising her writing style, originality and “startling” prose, yet they all suggest that she would be successful if she adjusted her content to more “ordinary themes”, because “Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these”. This framing explains the sharp cut-off of the other stories, implying they were abandoned after being rejected. Further, this “meta-assessment” of the stories in this novel forces us as the “Australian reader” to consider our own response to these hard-hitting and confronting scenes.

Aside from all existing within the narrative of the single-mother aspiring author as rejected manuscripts; the stories are linked only through their diverse exploration of a similar theme: namely the experience of living on “Foreign Soil” (both literally, ideologically and culturally), what it means to belong somewhere and how this can shape an identity. This theme is examined in a wide variety of contexts, reaching around the whole world and over multiple eras, yet this does not detract from their convincing authenticity. Clarke effortlessly incorporates specific local knowledge and detail, as well as changing rhythms and vernacular of diverse dialects such as Jamaican Patois, South London slang, a Sudanese migrant’s english to suburban Australian school girl chat. Each of these characters and settings is completely different from the previous, yet so immersive and musical, the collection of stories comes across almost as Clarke flexing her literary muscles; showing off what she can do. A useful strategy for a debut novel.

This novel was not only an enjoyable and intriguing read, but serves to give a voice to those on the fringes of society, and, contrary to what the fictional editors believe, deals with themes of immigration and acceptance of diversity that are particularly crucial for an Australian audience.

NW

Title: NW

Author: Zadie Smith

I bought this book after reading On Beauty, another of Smith’s novels, and while I enjoyed NW, it was nothing like what I was expecting it to be. It did have similar themes, surrounding race identity in London, but stylistically it was radically different. The choppy narration dives from one character to another, all the characters are connected based on them living in the same area of London, as denoted by the title (NW being the opening letters of postcodes in the north of London). Yet this connection is not a secret network à la Love Actually, some of the characters have zero interaction with the other parts of the novel. This makes for a bit of a bumpy ride as a reader.

This choppiness is not made clearer by the style of narration, it did remind me a little of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness in Mrs Dalloway. All the characters’ sections are narrated in a loose, free-flowing way that switches quickly between dialogue of other characters, internal monologue and orientating/setting descriptors. This was a little jarring at first, but I grew accustomed to it and as it goes on it becomes a way of being sucked into the mind of each character quickly and seamlessly, allowing for a depth of characterisation that would have been difficult for Smith to achieve otherwise with such a large and varied cast to juggle. However, it still made for a challenging read, I found myself having to reread whole sections because a certain event or reaction made me realise I’d missed something crucial that was only depicted as subtext amid the ‘ramblings’.

This multi-person narrative style does serve to explore the underbelly of these characters’ lives. I took away from it the impression that what someone maybe presenting as on the surface can be a long way from their actual personal experience, also the image that they thick they’re projecting, or how they perceive themselves can be very different from how they’re viewed by others. The two women who sit at the heart of this story are clear examples of this, jumping between their perspectives caused me to reframe and rebuild my impression of their characters numerous times throughout reading it; based on more information and the different opinions that I was reading based on outsider as well as inside perspectives. In this way, the fractal, shifting narrative allows for a deeper and more unbiased presentation of the character as you are left to build their image yourself based on multiple sources of information. This can serve as a caution against judging or making assumptions of people we meet in reality, as we, unlike the multiscient (is that a thing?) reader of NW, can only ever have access to a single perspective.

It was particularly interesting reading this novel while living in London, as it presents the London as experienced by a group of different people, all who have experiences and backgrounds different from my own. This gave me insight into the experiences of women in a career in London as adjusted for their race, their sex and their economic background, along with a view into a community and area of London that would normally be impenetrable to an outsider. I think, in this light, NW is to some extent an important anthropological view of a specific society or area in London. It provides a multi-layered cross-section of this group, alongside a veiled discussion of the inequalities and social problems present in it. While this is fiction, as Smith grew up in this specific area of London herself, I feel that it is an important and interesting insight into the culture and social context of North West London.

 

A Bid For Fortune

Title: A Bid For Fortune

Author: Guy Boothby

I started reading this book with absolutely zero expectations or prior knowledge, other than it was going to involve some sort of crime and that it was published in the 1800’s. Thus, I was surprised as, early in the book, there are very accurate descriptions of Sydney, down to the view from a certain bench in a specific park and the feeling of walking down York st. This made me google Guy Boothby and his work to find out a bit more.

Sure enough, Boothby was an Australian. An Australian author writing in the Victorian era, not about a specific colonial/settler narrative and popular (at the time) throughout Europe and the US? Crazy. At the time of publishing, A Bid for Fortune was wildly popular, and was actually one of the highest selling series in the genre. This is possibly as it was perfectly timed and designed to fill the hole left by Sherlock Holmes’ fall. Despite this sensational reception, Boothby has not been canonised, is mostly unknown and is not present in much (if any) scholarship focusing on the era or the genre. This is possibly due to it’s popularity making it ‘non-literary’; it was clearly tailored for the mainstream population. Also, it borrows heavily from contemporary and preceding styles and tropes, meaning it isn’t considered a pioneering figure, as Poe’s detective stories and Doyle’s Holmes were.

Going back to reading A Bid for Fortune with this in mind was therefore an interesting experience. I could detect the difference in tone that might have precluded this book from joining the same canon as Oliver Twist and The Sign of The Four, but only in the sensational quality of the plot and the dramatism rather than an extreme disparity in quality.

Dr Nikola, the villain, possesses a particularly engaging quality that is perhaps increased by his mysterious nature and distance from the narration, (I wrote a paper on the characterisation of villains, so get in touch if you want to read more on this haha). This dynamic and the fast-paced mystery plot did make up for the dryness of the main character, who, unfortunately, is also the narrator.

I did enjoy reading about Australia and an Australian that wasn’t defined by this quality, especially so early on in the country’s history of literary contributions. Sydney, while still retaining an identity, was depicted as a bustling and interesting metropolis that was not just an extension of England or a provincial colonial town.

I did enjoy reading this book, although my enjoyment was possibly increased by the fact that I am studying this era/genre and it is a idiosyncratic member of this specific group of titles. Thus, while it was an easy and pleasant read, and I can see why it was so popular at the time, I probably wont be searching out the other books in the series.

On Beauty

Title: On Beauty

Author: Zadie Smith

I picked up this novel at the Penguin Books pop-up store in London for International Women’s Day, called Write Like A Woman. It is a trans-atlantic story with a switching narrative perspective, apparently loosely based on E.M Forster’s Howards End, and follows two black families (one British, one American), who both are involved in academia, specifically art history.

The novel deals with themes such as racial identity, belonging, nuanced beauty and family in a way that is achingly beautiful; at times very funny, and at others melancholic. I didn’t realise it was an homage to EM Forster (one of my favourite authors) until after finishing, yet while I haven’t read Howards End (it’s on my list) I could still clearly see Forster’s influence in the tapestry of this text. It is a witty, dark but exquisite insight into the inner workings of a family, that is placed within a society that is close enough to reality to not be immediately type-cast as surrealism but that as you progress through the novel becomes ostensibly a reworked and exaggerated mirroring.

The female characters truly dominate and drive this novel. The two mothers, Carlene and Kiki are both the driving forces of their respective households, Kiki is vibrant and passionate, and Carlene is silently powerful and an appreciator of beauty. These two women are foils for their husbands who are both professors of Art History yet are both so involved in their opposing politics and their self-image that as characters they are sterile, and tyrannise their families. Personally, I really hated Howard, Kiki’s wife. He was a self-professed left-wing, intellectual, atheist and apparently had no capacity for kindness or sense of beauty (ironic in someone who makes studying art their lifework). He was cruel and unfaithful to Kiki, dismissive and distant from his children, especially when they chose paths different to his own, repetitive and gratuitous in his scholarship and altogether incapable of self-critique or introspection. This sterile approach to art, as translated and expressed in his personal life, was highlighted by the one off encounter into the world of Katie Armstrong, a student in Howard’s class. This encounter demonstrated her anticipation and efforts towards being admitted into the class, and her own intense emotional response to the Rembrandt piece that was the focus of the class.

The novel is also an interesting insight into the parallel but differing experiences of Black people in the academic community in the US versus the UK. As this is so far out of the realm of my own experience I can’t comment on it’s accuracy, but I can say that it was an effective and nuanced exploration of how Blackness is reacted to in academia. I found the white poet/professor Claire an interesting example of how the left-wing arts community responds to African-american vernacular culture as it crosses into more “academic” and “literary” circles.

Personally, I really enjoyed the book, although the ending did feel a bit abrupt and inconclusive. Although, thinking about it, the book is meant to be more of a tapestry, an exploration of a specific social setting rather than a linear plot, and so a dramatic conclusion wouldn’t have rung true either. Most of the characters I really disliked, they were selfish and conceited and made terrible decisions. With the exception of Kiki and Levi, I actually was irritated reading the narration of these other characters, yet, they were undeniably fitting and useful in the novel and overall did not detract from my experience of the book. I would highly recommend it, and am off to find another of Zadie Smith’s novels!

The Sign of the Four

Title: The Sign of the Four

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Reading this short novel has been my first experience of the “original” Sherlock Holmes. The character of Sherlock himself was a little different from what I was expecting; he was a more distant and a weaker presence. I found The Sign of the Four to be largely plot based, and featured few opportunities to get to know Sherlock as a character. This is partly created through the distance provided by Watson’s narration being our only insight into this world, and as Watson himself doesn’t seem to understand Sherlock or be able to penetrate the inner workings and motivations of the consulting detective, we as readers are similarly in the dark.

Also, Mr. Holmes had less of an “ego” than the character I’d had in my mind due to modern reinterpretations. Maybe this was due to his character being less forceful and present in the novel as in, for example, the BBC’s Sherlock. Nevertheless, it was a different Sherlock than I was expecting, and made, to me, the narrative seem a little dryer without such a dynamic and outrageously egotistical protagonist.

The story is completely narrated through the eyes and recollections of Dr John Watson. I developed a soft-spot for the well-meaning doctor, yet still I must admit in this novel his narration is a little slow on the uptake. I feel as though even as a reader I was making the links and connections about events and Sherlock’s methods faster than Watson himself was realising and conveying. This may have been intentional, a way of making the audience feel good about themselves by planting them on the intellectual-deductive scale definitely below Sherlock but firmly above Watson.

Another feature of this book that differed from other versions of Sherlock, is that the actual crime was comparatively tame. I didn’t experience the thrill of horror that normally accompanies crime fiction. The Sign of the Four centres around an accidental murder that leads back to an entwined plot involving a colonial uprising and the theft of a large chest of jewels from an Indian Rajah. I’m not sure if my 21st century exposure to outrageously imaginative and horrific crime has dulled my reaction to this story, or if it was intended to be less about crime and rather about the process of deduction and the pursuit (and eventual capture) of the criminals.

This book is undeniably wildly racist, from the descriptions of different minorities in India, the disregard with which the original owner’s claim over the treasure is treated (because he is a “native”), and the animalistic descriptions of the “small companion” , an islander named Tonga, are truly jarring to a 21st century reader.

I think overall I did really enjoy this book, despite it not quite living up to my expectations; which admittedly were huge as Sherlock Holmes is such a presence in contemporary culture. Perhaps as this is early in the Holmes series (I think only the second novel), Doyle hadn’t quite settled into the characters yet, explaining the ambiguous presence of Holmes himself and the faintly vapid narration via Watson. I definitely intend to read some of the others, so will maybe have a fairer opinion then!

 

 

Oliver Twist

Title: Oliver Twist

Author: Charles Dickens

Another “necessary” classic that it always just seems to be assumed that you’ve read (and that you recall minute details about). Well, now, I have actually read it.

I wont lie to you and say that this was an easy read. It is typical Dickensian prose, heavy in both style, content and form. In Oliver Twist especially there is a part in the middle that seems circuitous, repetitive and rather pointless. The style of this book was made clearer when I realised two things: firstly, that Dickens was paid by the line, so who can blame him for stretching it out a bit? Honestly, I respect the hustle. Secondly, Oliver Twist was first published as a periodical, so it makes sense that parts of the novel would have to be a little repetitive in order to refresh the memory of the original audience. This being said, just because I understand the reasons behind Dickens’ style, doesn’t mean I necessarily found it a breeze to read 300+ pages of it.

As much as I don’t feel as though Dickens is the un-critique-able literary genius that he is often portrayed as, he is undeniably skilled at creating atmospheric and emotionally vivid worlds through his words. His descriptions brought alive the misery and dirt of poverty in Victorian England. Reading Oliver Twist was therefore a haunting experience, the images he creates are not easily forgotten. This factor leads me to agree with those who argue that Charles Dickens was using a subtle (and therefore contemporarily acceptable) satire to critique the social system of Victorian England that allowed for such brutal injustice and poverty to exist right under the noses of the “good society”.

This being said, Dickens’ characterisation seems to support the unquestioned Victorian ideology of crime as being innate, and that criminals are inherently bad people. This is seen in the continued descriptions of Oliver in the light of an innocent, fragile and angelic creature who manages to sail untainted through his abusive childhood and his association with the criminal world (to the point where one finds him a trifle irritating). This is contrasted with descriptions of characters on the other side of the morality scale, namely Fagin and Bill Sikes, who both are described as exhibiting physical characteristics that make them repulsive to others and clearly identify them as criminals.

Another ideological overtone to Oliver Twist is a two-pronged demonstration of the nature of crime. Firstly, that it is black and white, secondly that it will always “out” and be punished accordingly. The first point is clear not only in the distinct characterisation of criminals and non-criminals as mentioned above, a factor that is not reflective of reality, but also through the crime’s removal from circumstances. Stealing due to extreme poverty is portrayed to be the same level of “evil” as a rich man seeking to swindle his half-brother out of his potential inheritance. To the second point, crime is shown to have an intense affect on the perpetrator’s conscience to the point that they either confess, or drive themselves to their own demise.

This ideology fits with the contemporary thoughts surrounding criminality at the time of Oliver Twist‘s publication. I imagine that the clear distinction between what is crime and what is not, and the vivid descriptions of the evil people who commit the crimes served to placate the readers. To make them feel safe enough to enjoy reading the thrilling insight into the criminal world that this novel provides, while not worrying about the same depravity influencing their own world.

Overall I did enjoy reading Oliver Twist, Dickens has a way with words that sucks you in. There were moments where the novel was powerfully emotional, and other parts were quite funny as a satirical farce or caricature. It is worth pushing on through the stagnant middle section (even if you do skip a chapter or two); one of the final chapters, Fagin’s Last Night Alive, is a truly incredible piece of writing and sticks with you long after you’ve finished it.