‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

I may have chosen to read this book even if it hadn’t been chosen by my Book Club. It is a story from the ‘Troubles’ in Belfast told 51Oyp+6sFzL._SL500_by a young woman from the republican side of the divide. As I grew up in Lanarkshire, in Central Scotland, where sectarian bigotry was rife; where we had red, white and blue painted unionist kerbstones on the pavements; where “F.T.P.” and “1690 ya bas” were sprayed on many gable ends; and where most childhood encounters started with the far-from-innocent question “What school do you go to?”; this is a period that captures my attention. So even had it not been chosen by the Book Club I would probably have started to read it. However, it is only because of the book club that I persevered.

Milkman, by Anna Burns,  was the book which won the Man Booker prize this year. It tells the tale of “middle sister” and her “maybe boyfriend” and their experiences in Belfast in the 1970’s. The places are never named though it is very obvious where they are. The protagonists are never clearly stated as the I.R.A., U.V.F. or British Army but are always easily identifiable. Indeed no character is named in the story, all are ‘named’ by descriptive terms such as, “maybe boyfriend”, “tablets girl”, “the international couple”, “third brother in law” and so on. This latter idiosyncrasy does wear thin after while but surprisingly it does help the story flow. I used to find when reading Russian sagas I’d be thinking “Which Anatolya is this one ? Is this Sergei’s wife or Anastasia’s sister ? ” This does not happen in this book there is never any mistaking who is “the real milkman” as opposed to “the milkman”. Indeed this was an interesting quirk which did give the character of overhearing gossip or hearsay to the novel.

The problem I had with the book was twofold. Firstly the writing is densely packed. A stream of consciousness oozes out with sentences extending over ten lines before meeting a full stop and paragraphs running over pages. Even just looking at the book it looks dark grey, there is little white space breaking up the text. I found reading this style hard work and fatiguing. Especially as some paragraphs were simply strings of synonyms or repetitions of the same fact slightly differently. It was taxing, tiring, very fatiguing, draining, arduous, exhausting, sapping and sometimes burdensome. There was never any doubt that Anna Burns owned a thesaurus.

After a few days, despite my best intentions, I hade made little progress and was ready, with some misgivings, to abandon the book. But it was the Book Club book and I’d have to discuss it the following week so I had a dilemma. I decided that the best course of action, one that I’d used successfully before,  would be to cheat – I’d listen to the book on Audible.

This was a revelation. After a few minutes I was drawn into the story. The narrator Brid Brennan was simply superb. Her voice, with a clear Northern Irish accent, brought a vitality to the text that I could not see when looking at the printed page. It was akin to sitting on a bus and overhearing a couple, seated behind you, relating a story. It was fascinating to hear despite being rambling, discursive and overinclusive. It really did bring out the paranoia and illogicality of living in sectarian areas in the middle of periods of strife.

It is strange that this book is so different in the two differing media. I could hardly recommend it as a book to be read. But as the script for a radio drama, or other production, I could hardly recommend it strongly enough. At first when I had noted that  it had won the Man-Booker Prize I thought of emperors and their new clothes. I thought perhaps it is a book aimed at writers rather then readers. But having listed to it I realise I was wrong and this clearly is work of a very talented author. I may go back and try and actually “read” the book but I am content to know that I “listened” to it and enjoyed it.

 

 

The End of the World Running Club. (Adrian J. Walker)

While I was cleaning our holiday let, in 51NXDkgb5VLpreparation for the next set of visitors, I noticed an addition to the bookcase. This book, “The End Of The World Running Club” by Adrian J . Walker, had been put on the shelf on it’s side (It was this that drew my attention to it). I had a quick look at the cover and the blurb on the backpage and decided I would give it a try. It was not the type of book to which I am normally drawn though I had enjoyed the post-apocalyptic tale of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and thus knew it was possible to tackle important themes in this potentially depressing genre.

The book starts at the end of the world with a bang, literally a bang, as an asteroid shower hits the UK ending life as we know it. Interestingly the opening scenes take place in Edinburgh and the Lothians which was a pleasant surprise and the geography, or what is left of it, was well and accurately described. The main protagonist, Edward Hill, and his family survive the initial strike but soon become separated and find themselves at different ends of the British Isles. This sets up the premise for the book; Edward must race, against time, from one end of Britain to the other for the sake of his family.

Unfortunately, Edward is an overweight, un-fit, sluggard who has had a lifelong aversion to healthy activities and in no fit state to undertake a run like this. But heteams up with a few others and they start their odyssey. During the run they meet number of people, both good and bad, and issues of trust and survival are discussed. The characters are well drawn, believable and, our heroes, are likeable. There is a great deal of the self-deprecating humour that is characteristic of the UK and Australia as Edward considers his failings and shortcomings as a man and, especially, as a husband and father. Some of these passages are ‘laugh out loud’ funny (as my wife trying to sleep will testify). Unfortunately,  I think this aspect of the humour was behind many of the poor reviews on Goodreads where reviewers found Edward unlikeable as he spends a great deal of the time considering his failings rather than ever blowing his own trumpet. I suppose that is possible that this particularly ‘blokeish’ humour may be off-putting to some, though I found it enjoyable.

It is when Edward, and the other characters, consider their difficulties and how they will face up to them that the meat of the story develops. They have to face adversity, learn responsibility, trust and endurance. These lessons are drawn by very human scenarios in extreme circumstances. The humanity of the characters makes these situations credible and make us empathise with the players and care what happens to them. These are frail people not heroes and it is easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. As a consequence this book rips along at a fast pace and even though it is lengthy (466 pages) I found that I read it in a few eager sittings. As the story neared its end and the conclusion drew into view I really didn’t want it to happen and could happily have read on.

This is an excellent holiday novel, one to pack for beside the pool. It is also an excellent choice as bedtime reading. Either way don’t expect it to last too long.

 

‘Karoo’ by Steve Tesich

The idea of the ‘Great Amercan Novel’ imagessuggest that each epoch has its own novel. A piece of work so good that it both captures the times and stands as a great work of literature in its own right. The “Grapes of Wrath’ in the 30’s, “Catcher in the Rye” in the 50’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the 60’s; each time seems to have revealed its memoire. I’d suggest we have found our own in “Karoo” by  Steve Tesich.

I am ashamed to say that although this book was published in 1998 I had never heard of it, nor considered it, until a week ago. During a long drive between Wales and Scotland it was discussed on the BBC radio book programme. The enthusiasm of the reviewers was so great that, the minute I got home. I purchased a copy on the kindle. A few days later I had finished it and was awed by the skill of the writer.

A term like “tragi-comedy” might be employed to define it and certainly it manages the rare trick of being at times hilariously funny while at others being heartrendingly sad. The main character, Saul Karoo, is our anti-hero through the book and is our present day version of Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Babbit’ or Updike’s ‘Rabbit’. A man who seems to be able to fail at almost anything and has the reverse Midas touch, and able to destroy just through casual acquaintance. However, sometimes by looking at the grotesque we are able to see out own flaws more clearly. Seeing someone fail on this epic scale it is easier to consider our own, much smaller, foibles and failings.

Steve Tesich was a script writer and this is evident in this book. The reader can visualise every scene in Karoo’s monologue and some of the visual humour will make you laugh outloud (His mother’s shovel dance for example). It is difficult to review this book without giving away and  plot surprises. It would be unfair to do so, as there is great pleasure in the book waiting and anticipating the catastrophy you know is around the corner. If you have not found this book then I’d suggest you start looking.