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BooksOctober 11, 2018

Man Booker Prize Fight Week, third and final round: Anna Burns vs Daisy Johnson


The 2019 Man Booker prize is announced next week. Scarlett Cayford reviews two of the shortlisted novels, Milkman by Anna Burns and Everything Under by Daisy Johnson.

The first pages of Milkman by Anna Burns feel like the beginning of a dystopian novel. We’re familiar with the conventions: a feeling of being observed, an urgent adherence to accepted behaviours, unnamed bombed-out neighbourhoods and a strong underlying sense of wrongness. Characters are identified by their relationship to others (maybe-boyfriend, third-brother-in-law) in the context of brutality and cruelty and a village populated by traitors and informers. This could be 1984; it could be The Handmaid’s Tale.

Instead, we’re in the heart of the Troubles, in 1970’s Republican-controlled Northern Ireland, where our 18-year-old protagonist, who is never given a name but is known as “middle sister”, strides along quickly with her nose buried in a book. Her third-brother-in-law chides her for her strange behaviour, but in her own words, “This would be a nineteenth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century.” The world she lives in is populated by neighbours spying on neighbours, guns buried in backyards, people poisoned without warning, bombs exploding inside bonnets and cameras clicking inside bushes.

Her resistance to acknowledging her surrounds does not protect her from being prayed upon by the Milkman, who is not a milkman, but instead an older predatory member of the paramilitary, intent upon possessing her. The nature of his pursuit of her (following her in his car, meeting her on deserted roads, pacing her as she runs) convinces the watchful neighbourhood, including her mother and her maybe-boyfriend, that the relationship is real, and she finds herself unable to escape the attention of her dangerous would-be lover.

“Why could I just not stop this running and tell this man to leave me alone? At the time, age 18, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society, where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t happening?”

With this as the plot – and especially as readers live through Kavanaugh and Dr Ford and a jarring political era where a dystopia might feel like a welcome respite – it seems strange to call it a comedy, but it is. The bald prose, which relies on repetition and convolution and reads like a ruthless stream-of-consciousness, is loaded with ribald commentary. The situation might be terrible, the threat of bombings and disappearances and sexual violence real, but everything is painted with such ridicule that you can’t help but laugh. It’s a coping mechanism we’re all guilty of and forgivable for. Dig in with jokes about calendars and beer and orange faces and pith helmets. Cat heads and Ivanhoe and milkmen with no milk about them.

It’s grim laughter, though, especially when it becomes clear that the humour and strong personality of the teenage protagonist won’t be enough to save her from the adult attention from the milkman.

Despite being strong-willed, there’s plenty about the inner monologues of middle sister that make it clear that she isn’t unmarked by the accusatory nature of the society in which she lives. She has strong feelings for her maybe-boyfriend, a kind-natured boy who likes to take apart cars and remove her clothes in his living room; who appreciates football and cooking and sunsets, but when the latter hobbies draw dangerous attention to him, she’s quick to reconsider her feelings.

“Secretly I had a worry that maybe-boyfriend might not be a proper man. This thought came in the darker moments, in my complex unbidden moments, swiftly going, and which I wouldn’t admit – especially to myself – to having had.”

There’s plenty of commentary on sexuality and masculinity in Milkman. In her mother’s mind, there are two possible outcomes: that she remains a spinster, or that she takes up with the milkman. Virgin or whore, and either and both would be her fault. That the best-case scenario (she’s in a relationship with a nice man whose worst vice is an appreciation of car parts, like a non-magic Arthur Weasley) might actually be true is beyond the realms of conception in a society where boys are blown to bits. Her mother lives in dark fear of her daughter being caught up with the kind of man who preys upon her, that by the end, she seems almost to have conjured him into being.

In the background of the bitterness is their husband and father, who confessed on his deathbed to having been the victim of repeated rape as a child, and who the mother characterises as “believing in nothing” while she dismisses his claims as lies. Burns’ description of his depression is beautiful and awful, “Big, massive, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions” – though of course, his illness is not given legitimacy as “depression”, but rather “moods” which one must shake free of.

This is a world in which to protest innocence is to be assumed guilty, where victims are blamed, where the subtext runs many lines deep, and where one might be killed for buying the wrong butter.

In one scene, all the dogs in the town are murdered, their throats slit so deeply that they appear to have been decapitated, their bodies piled high. The villagers queue up, one by one, to identify the matted, bloodied corpses, and bury them.

In another, we learn that maybe-boyfriend’s parents left home with no warning, running away to become ballroom dance stars, leaving a note reading only, “Sorry kids. Seeing things in right relation we should never have had children. We’re just off dancing forever” – and that these erstwhile parents become celebrities in the town, admirable in their glittering, gorgeous escape.

In a third, a young boy barely reacts to his brother’s head being blown off in front of him, then commits suicide in a dread panic about the possible nuclear armament of America and Russia. The novel dips back and forth between loyalty and division, fear and faith, dark humour and plain old darkness so that the lines are never clear.

Previously in Man Booker Prize Fight Week:

Brannavan Gnanalingam reviews Washington Black by Esi Edugyan and The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Philip Matthews reviews The Long Take by Robin Robertson and The Overstory by Richard Powers

It’s not a simple read. The prose is jumbled and the sentences are drawn out. It’s funny and complicated and sometimes wilfully confusing. Though some segments seem over-long, the blending of dystopian tropes with historical accuracy and a heavy dose of Catch-22-esque humour makes Milkman both exciting and unusual. It’s the self-awareness that gives it the edge – plus, you can’t help but enjoy lines like: “The fact that I myself was in it, talking to a sinister man while holding the head of a cat that had been bombed to death by Nazis was proof, if anything, that the… area was not for normal things.”

The eponymous milkman might be the ultimate antagonist, but what is obvious throughout is that there are no real allies in a society divided along the lines of religion, belief and politics. Bomb-beheaded cats aside, the real damage is done by the “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district”, who ensure that rumour converts to fact with one in-drawn breath.

In a book about a mother and a daughter who communicate in their own language, in words created from the natural sounds and surrounds of their own life, it is no surprise to find a use of language that is strong, and unique, and savage. Daisy Johnson’s prose in Everything Under, her first novel, pummels the page, sinuous and ugly, full of bitter image and beauty. The story weaves a mystery, with names acting as substitutions, rather than signposts, but it is the phrasing as much as the plot that keeps the reader blindly following.

“We were aliens. We were like the last people on earth. If – in any sense – language determined how we thought, then I could never have been any other way than the way I am. And the language I grew up speaking was one no else spoke. So I was always going to be isolated, lonely, uncomfortable in the presence of others. It was in my language. It was in the language you gave me.”

The central story-teller is Gretel, a lexicographer working in Oxford, but in her present she is much more ghost than the figures that rise from her past. Until the age of 13 she lived on a canal boat with her mother, Sarah; now, sixteen years later, obsessively she seeks her out by searching through morgues, and visiting the places she used to live. Gretel remembers her childhood only in pieces: the roof of the canal-boat, a young man named Marcus, and the Bonak, an invented ill-willed river demon, a shapeless dripping harbinger of death.

This is a story told in shards, glancing off half-recalled memories and long-believed lies. At the heart of it is short grey-eyed Sarah, who is by turns the heroine and the villain of the piece. She is rough, and raw; she is capable and kind, both lover and corrupter. She is a woman warped by unsought motherhood, who looks at her child and sees pieces of herself walking around, and away. She is the character brought most to life, though little of the narrative comes from her own mouth. She is scarred and unsettling, a butcher and a barbarian.

“She can dig from one side of the world to the other and has done many times, she doesn’t need to sleep, she can eat animals whole, she says she’s a runner-away but really she’s a stayer-putter and very good.”

In the present, when Gretel finds her mother, she is in pieces, one breast cut away, and brain riddled with Alzheimer’s, with “the size of an orange cored right out of you”. Gretel seeks the memories Sarah has lost, encouraging and chiding her. Having spent most of her childhood in foster care, she wants to know why the mother she loved left her.

The novel can be hard to follow. It doesn’t help you along; the plot doesn’t take a linear path. As the narrators switch, and times moves back and forth, you are expected to move with it without the aid of dates, or changed voices. What starts as a tale of Gretel seeking out her mother sends you swiftly down the path of another child, Margot, found by the towpath and adopted by a couple longing for a child. As Margot grows older, she goes stranger – a nagging limp, an inability to read, a growing obsession with the neighbour next door, a trans woman named Fiona who believes that she can predict the future. Fiona becomes catalyst and betrayer, so bound up in her own pain and the certainty of fate that she sends fearful Margot down a final, disastrous path.

All stories are retellings of another, and this one follows an Oedipal plot, rife with daughters and sons and patricide and incest. There is Hansel and Gretel here too, a fallen fairytale in the natural world, all wrapped up the insidious fear of the Bonak, who follows them always, who might be a weed-wrapped riverbeast or might be an impending storm or a stray dog or even a bloody leg of meat flayed open and salted on the deck of a boat.

The Gretel of the past is much more real than the Gretel of the present. She is loud and present and scatty, clambering over the roof of the boat and the banks of the river with the kind of ownership that comes from never having known anything else. She worships her mother while running wild, and it is her who entices lost teenage Marcus into their lives, trading pages of his book for hanks of bread and cake. The Gretel in the here and now is an outline – without knowing why her mother left her, and why she has come back, she is devoid of detail. The 16 years since she saw her mother last are sketched in only softly. We do not know who she looks like, except in reference to her mother. Her job in the only thing that anchors her, and that is telling: she is a person searching for definition.

It is a tragic story, and one that makes no bones about the kind of destruction one human can wreak upon another. Everything Under takes the idea of parenthood and turns it into an exercise in pain. A mother abandons two daughters. A child, wanting only to avoid inflicting torment, abandons her mother. The fathers, though present, play a lighter, easier role – though “light”, in the context of this novel, doesn’t mean much.

It reminded me at times of Joanne Harris – not the sweetly-scented Chocolat, but the later, darker Five Quarters of the Orange, in which a daughter deliberately brings forth crippling migraines in her mother by hiding preserved orange peel in her pillowcases, and through which flows a grey river, filled with pike, and one, big, frightening secret. The sense of place is as strong, and as rich, and Johnson plays similarly viscerally with the idea of scent. If Harris is an author who feeds her readers, Johnson is one who seeks to turn their stomachs. Her phrases are fetid and rank, her words are objects forced down gullets.

“If Margot went back, she would kill her father. If she went back she would… she could not think of the second. It was not in a language that could fit in the hollows of her cheeks. It tasted like dust, like gone-off yoghurt or burnt toast.”

There is a great deal of hunger in this tale: of the literal kind when Margot flees her life and lies starving in her damp tent, of the figurative kind, as Gretel sifts through the detritus of her mother’s broken brain to her past back, and of the metaphorical kind in the Bonak. Daisy Johnson’s magical realism is so stealthy, so rich with the idea that nature and fantasy are bound together, that by the close it’s not longer about who, or what the Bonak is, but about who you become when it sets on you.

Everything Under swells with the notion that our history might be something we can claw up and purge, then reconciles with the reality: that it makes up the very bones of us. The fact that it sprang from the 27-year-old brain of Daisy Johnson makes it all the more impressive. Truthfully, I’m finding it hard to totally quieten the selfish patriotic slice of me that would prefer the title of youngest-ever Man Booker Prize winner to remain with Eleanor Catton. But there’s no denying that this poetic mystery is a true contender.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, $33) and Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (Jonathan Cape, $40) are available at Unity Books.

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