‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

Sometimes brilliant, more often than not infuriating, the 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel by Anna Burns is a polarising experience. It took me some eight months to read it – and, four months in, wished I had heeded the advice of a friend who suggested the audio version and for it to be treated as a staged monologue.

Essentially a stream of consciousness from an 18 year-old woman living during the sectarian ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, our narrator uses few names as she expounds and expands on daily life in a run down catholic Belfast neighbourhood. In her attempt to distance herself from the politics of the area – or at least not become attached – she (we only ever never know her as middle sister or maybe-girlfriend) finds herself isolated and misunderstood by those around her. When Milkman – a married man and leading paramilitary – introduces himself uninvited into her life, by default to the gossips she becomes his property. Even her own ma believes middle-sister as thrown herself at Milkman and thus ruined her reputation.

Milkman is a battle from the outset. As a stream of consciousness and uncertainty, the same thought can be questioned, challenged, opined, regurgitated over pages – and made even more infuriating by not naming names. An obtuse shorthand results in the right or wrong religion; renouncers and defenders of the State; our side of the road and the other side of the road; over the border and over the water. Family members become oldest sister, wee sisters (the triplets), brother-in-law number 3, non-family members are referred to as Maybe-Boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and so on. In an attempt to distance the events from the specifics of Northern Ireland and suggest the impact of other experiences, societies and environs, Anna Burns creates a distance, an emotional void to the events unfolding.

The novel is unquestionably an astute account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape of the 1970s, of a divided and untrusting community and based on the author’s own experiences. It is, at times, enigmatic, beguiling and, occasionally, funny. Yet, for all that, it’s a meandering, repetitive slog.

‘The Keeper’

Enjoyable if slight bio of Bert Trautmann, a German POW on English soil who, against all odds, became a legendary sporting hero in England itself.

David Kross (The Reader, War Horse) is the lead as, with the help of local grocer Jack Friar (John Henshaw – Stan & Ollie, The Angels’ Share) and his daughter, Margaret (Freya Mavor – The Sense of an Ending, Sunshine on Leith), Trautmann gets time off from the post-war internment camp and becomes the goalkeeper for the local St Helens football club. Scouts soon arrive and, just three years after the end of the war, Trautmann is controversially signed by Manchester City.

It takes time to win the fans over – and Trautmann faced a great deal of abuse from opposing fans when travelling to other cities – but the famed 1956 Wembley FA Cup Final with Manchester City playing Birmingham City ensured that the German ‘keeper entered the annals of footballing history.

No risks are taken by director Marcus H Rossenmueller (Grave Decisions, The Colour of Mother-of-Pearl) in telling this straightforward story of a man who overcame public hostility to become a local hero (with more than a little help from his wife, Margaret).

Rating: 61%

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion’s debut novel is the 21st century book equivalent of the Hollywood screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Wit percolates throughout as geneticist professor Don Tillman, firmly somewhere on the spectrum, looks for love and a wife. With the aid of Gene, philandering head of department and his best friend, Don draws up a sixteen page questionnaire to scientifically identify his ideal wife partnership, covering attitudes towards punctuality, diet, smoking and more.

But, for a man dictated by rules and precise schedules (three minutes for a shower, one minute to dress, eight minutes to cycle to the university), he soon discovers that not everything goes according to the best laid plans. Meeting Rosie results in emotions coming into play.

Naturally, Rosie is everything that Don believes beyond the pale – an occasional smoker, excessive drinker, vegetarian (although she will eat sustainable fish and seafood), dyes her hair red – and more. But then their relationship is based on the Father Project as, as far as Don is concerned, Rose has failed the Wife Project anyway. The Father Project is Don helping Rosie to identify her father through (the unethical and illegal) gathering of DNA from likely suspects and testing in the university labs.

We all know where it’s heading (although, thankfully, a moment when Gene is in the paternal reckoning is quickly laid to rest) but Simsion’s warm-hearted, frequently laugh-out-loud tale as Don struggles to logically understand the behaviour of others but who ultimately fails his own tests is a real charmer, full of heart and generosity of spirit.

‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London

An acclaimed and award-winning short story writer, Joan London’s storytelling and spare, concise language comes to the fore in her first novel, published in 2001.

Two young teenage sisters, Edith and Frances, struggle to survive on a small, isolated farm in the south-west of Australia. Their father recently died, their mother drifts in and out of reality (or creates her own). It’s 1937 when, out of the blue, cousin Leopold appears along with Aram, his Armenian friend.

For the unworldly Edith, their arrival shakes the very foundations of her everyday. Conversation and laughter arrives in the decrepit shack the women call home. She is swept away as Aram tells his story of the Armenian massacre in 1915 and the murder of his parents, the orphanage in Aleppo, his homeland. But mythical tales of adventures are also told – including that of Gilgamesh, the legendary King of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. It is his journey of mourning, a journey undertaken with his friend Enkedu, that resonates with Edith.

Two years later, with Europe on the brink of war, Edith sets off with her young son, Jim, to find the two men, with London her first stop.

Spanning continents and generations, Joan London’s Gilgamesh is a modern day exploration of the epic poem – or a quest as Edith follows her own journey in search of Aram, the father of her child. From London, it takes her to Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Syria before finally returning to Australia. On her way, she meets some extraordinarily strong women (particularly in Armenia) and dodgy men and, whilst occasionally Gilgamesh turns into something of an episodic soap opera, it’s a compelling tale.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award, Joan London and Gilgamesh lost out to Tim Winton and Dirt Music.

‘Under the Silver Lake’

An odd, overlong, meandering thriller as Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, Hackshaw Ridge) searches LA for the woman living in the same apartment building who suddenly disappears.

It’s all a little too contrived and self-conscious to hit the neo noir bizarre button writer/director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover, It Follows) is searching for as the ordinary but likeable Garfield finds himself way out of his depth. It always looks good but even the occasional inspirational moment fails to lift Under the Silver Lake above boring.

Rating: 40%

‘Happy as Lazzaro’

Reminiscent of the Italian social realist films of the 1960s (and Pasolini in particular), Happy as Lazzaro is a beautiful yet odd allegory as the saintlike innocence of the young farmworker (debutant Adriano Tardiolo) – as with the film itself – initially charms but slowly grates.

An isolated tobacco estate (possibly in the 1970s/80s) sees the wealthy landowning family exploit its workers to levels of (illegal) feudalism, keeping them in permanent debt and ignorance of the world outside. Lazzaro forms an unlikely bond with the landowning son, Tancredi.

But a sudden shift by director Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Corpo Celeste) sees her film head in a very different and unexpected direction. Lazzaro remains essentially unchanged – but the world around him is very different (to say more would give too much away).

The first half of an overlong film is gorgeously shot and socially real (the opening scene of virtual darkness with voices negotiating the use of the only electric lightbulb followed by an extraordinarily subdued wedding ceremony is stunning) that slips sadly into mundane obscurity.

Rating: 54%

‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is based loosely on the true story of the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam. In 1665, as plague swept the country, the villagers, persuaded by their young minister, Michael Mompesson, chose to isolate themselves. But this was not fear of the plague reaching them. An infected bolt of cloth sent from London had already seen to that. The villagers voluntarily cut themselves off to prevent the disease being carried further. It’s an astonishing story of a community, of survival, of death, of faith, of sacrifice packed with historical detail.

Brooks chooses to tell her tale through the voice of Anna Frith, a young widow and housemaid to Mompellion (the fictional minister). Right from the off, we know some great tragedy has occurred.

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and signs and sounds that said this year it would be all alright: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came….This year the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

Anna is a survivor from, it is revealed, a disease that wiped out more than half of the village in less than a year. It is her lodger, a young Mr Viccars, who, as a travelling tailor, is the first victim. It is he who has ordered the death-carrying cloth. Anna’s two young sons soon join him. The plague seeds spread quickly, regardless of age, gender and wealth. Every household is affected. Whole families are wiped out: parents die, their children survive: parents survive, their children die. As the community diminishes, faith frays, blame apportioned.

A relatively peaceful homogenous village disintegrates: the self-sufficiency of rural life is decimated. It is Anna and Elinor Mompellion who look to maintain the spirits of the locals – and help care for those stuck down by the virulent disease. But they are also the voice of reason – commentators on the small minority who take advantage of the situation, including Anna’s own father, for personal gain.

In spite of the knowledge from the very beginning that tragedy strikes and a vast percentage of the village will be wiped out, Brooks still manages to create a surprising level of suspense in Year of Wonders. It’s a deeply moving and affecting story as seen through the young Anna’s eyes. Knowing she survives to recount the story allows the reader to grow with her as she moves from a tongue-tied housemaid to a vocal critic of Mompellion and other men of the village. She is a woman who takes charge in cases of need.

It’s only the somewhat contrived ending of Brooks novel that denies its classic status. When the plague seems to be finally dying out, events unfold and secrets revealed that are wholly unexpected and, in reality, unnecessary. The result, to my mind, is that the last 20 pages or so undermine all that has gone before it. Which is a pity, as Year of Wonders is an eminently readable and laudable debut novel.

‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe

As his troubled family life collapses around him, young Francie Brady retreats into a world of make-belief and violent fantasy.

Set in small-town Ireland in the 1960s, Patrick McCabe’s grim tragicomedy of madness and abuse sees the emotional breakdown of a young boy as he struggles to differentiate between fact and fiction. With an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother committed to an institution, home life is violent, abusive and unstable. His friendship with Joe is the only stabilising part of his life. But as Francie becomes more and more unhinged, even Joe disowns him.

The focus for Francie’s violent and crazed fantasies is Mrs Nugent, the posh, judgmental, recently-arrived-from-England neighbour. A brash and defiant Francie stands up to her – leading to an institution for himself, where one of the priests abuses him but where he is also befriended by the ex-IRA gardener.

The Butcher Boy is a rollercoaster ride, ultimately unpleasant as Francie slips more and more into crazed madness. From the outset, we have an indication of what we’re in for – the opening page sees Francie in hiding on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. All is revealed over the course of the relatively short but dense novel.

It’s Francie himself who is the narrator of what is essentially an allegory for the relationship between Ireland and England and the effects of the long colonial history between the two countries. But this is no agit-prop prophesising tome – The Butcher Boy is a deeply personal, surprisingly compassionate tale of madness, violence and loyalty. It’s just not a very pleasant or easy read.

Shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize, Patrick McCabe’s Irish Times-Aer Lingus Prize for fiction winning novel lost out to the joint winning The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.


Parasite: the history-making Korean film having become the first film to win both the best feature film and best foreign language Oscars as well as the Golden Globe and BAFTA. Such accolades added to the earlier-awarded Palme d’Or at Cannes 2019 (as well as, among many others, the best film at the Sydney Film Festival). Parasite is a splendidly anarchic dark comedy about social divides and love of money.

As dirt-poor Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song – Snowpiercer, The Age of Shadows) and his family struggle to survive, an opportunity for his son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi – Okja, Train to Busan), to teach English at the wealthy Parks’ home leads to a scam that goes tragically wrong.

Director Bong Joon Ho (Okja, Snowpiercer) mixes humour, slapstick, drama, gore and suspense to masterful effect in his love of sociopolitical commentaries (Snowpiercer, anyone?) ably supported by a cast that excels.

Nominated for 5 Oscars, won 3 (best film, director, foreign language film) in 2020.

Rating: 89%