‘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 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.

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

secret scriptureA lyrical account of centenarian Roseanne McNulty’s life in rural Ireland, The Secret Scripture is both compelling and enlightening.

Long time resident of Roscommon mental hospital, Roseanne’s testimony of life prior to incarceration is interweaved with that of psychiatrist, Dr Grene. The old, decrepit Victorian hospital is soon to be demolished. With fewer available beds in the new building, Grene is to determine which patients can be released into the community.

Grene is particularly intrigued by Roseanne’s case. Like many of the older patients under his care, the origins of her confinement are questionable, not helped by records having been destroyed by fire twenty years earlier. Sensitive to the known facts contained within remaining official reports (infanticide, nymphomania (!), adultery) and her age, Grene treads lightly with his questioning. But, unknown to the doctor, she is secretly writing her own recollections.

Ireland’s malignant history is ever present in Barry’s writing – and The Secret Scripture is no different. The young Roseanne was a great beauty but as a Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland in the 1920s, she was confronted with militant Irish nationalism and sectarianism, incurable enmities and the loss of innocence and joy. Even her marriage to Tom McNulty was short-lived and tragic, a victim of the power of the Irish Catholic Church. Father Gaunt (later Bishop) is a symbol of the perversion and bigotry of the church at that time over the lives and the moral judgements of its flock. Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.

It’s a heart-rending story, a work of fiction exploring memory and its effect on history and truth. Barry himself throws in the question of just how much of Roseanne’s narrative is truthful. No one has the monopoly on truth… Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought. And her recollections certainly vary from those official reports. But truth (at least in part) is Grene’s responsibility: or at least a different version. The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.

 And Grene certainly reveals an unexpected new truth at the end of The Secret Scripture.

 It’s lucid and slow-paced, even though Roseanne’s story is livid and urgent. Barry’s descriptive prose is poetic yet accessible, his commentary on this period of Irish history vivid but humane. The Secret Scripture was Sebastian Barry’s second Booker Prize shortlisting (A Long Long Way was the first in 2004), but it lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.


‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins

keepers of truth

A real page-turner, author Michael Collins combines a 1980s-set murder mystery along with a social commentary on the demise of small-town America as its life-blood, the manufacturing industries, close.

A fascinating hybrid that is both requiem and dissection, The Keepers of Truth is a grimly prophetic story of universal change and the death of the known and the secure. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalised of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism.

Bill, son of a former industrialist who committed suicide rather than witness the closure of his factories in the town, is an aspiring journalist reduced to writing editorial about charity bake-offs and college sports. What he really wants to headline in the slowly dying newspaper, The Daily Truth, is his philosophies on the (unnamed Midwest) town that was once the keepers of industrialism, but which is now a town of trainee managers. Oh happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation… a sublimated longing for our dead machines.

The report that Old Man Lawton is missing changes all that. Locals (including the local police) immediately blame the son, Ronny. But whilst there’s motive, there’s not enough evidence. Bill, with his ageing colleagues, editor Sam and photographer Ed, in their hunt for the truth, become more and more embroiled in the bizarre investigation of few clues.

It’s a trailer-trash hunt of incest, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, emotional breakdowns and paranoia. But it’s also a time-crawling hunt during the intense July heat and drought, a physical boredom of intense severity that threatens the return of bake-off lead stories and the newspapermen surviving on whisky and tuna melts (Sam’s speciality).

The Keepers of Truth is a deeply relevant and pertinent social commentary and a morbidly dark comedy (think Coen Brothers or Collins’ countryman, Martin McDonagh). It’s the American dream turned sour told in long, cadenced sentences that create a rhythmic reading that add to that sense of slightly breathless reading.

It’s a real tour de force.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, The Keepers of Truth lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 1996


It’s the first year where I have completed reading all novels shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize. The judges selected Graham Swift and Last Orders. Did they, in my opinion, make the right call?


Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Beryl Bainbridge, Every Man For Himself
Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark
Shena MacKay, The Orchard of Fire
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Graham Swift, Last Orders

 It was, by all accounts, an uncontroversial shortlist (for a change) with two Australians – Kate Jennings (Snake) and Gary Disher (The Sunken Road) – just missing out (these were the days before the shortlist was preceded by the longlist). And it was certainly something of a vintage year – heavyweights Atwood (her third appearance on the list in 10 years) and Bainbridge (her fourth); the poet and literary academic Seamus Deane; the eventual winner Graham Swift, regarded as the favourite to win and responsible for Waterlands, viewed by many as one of the finest English novels of the 1990s; winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Canadian Giller Prize, A Fine Balance was in the running with Shena McKay as the outsider.

You’ll see from my reviews below that I generally felt positive towards all five books although, surprisingly, the weakest was Beryl Bainbridge – a sparely written fairly short novel of a very familiar story – the sinking of the Titanic. And whilst it’s told from a different perspective (a young male first-class passenger), familiarity breeds a little too much contempt.

Two rites-of-passage offer very different perspectives of growing up – the everyday fears, terrors and misapprehensions of a young girl in 1950s rural England as opposed to a young catholic boy in Derry in Northern Ireland during the same time frame. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed!

Atwood’s book is based on a true story and the exploration of just how culpable Grace Marks was in the murder of her employer in a remote Canadian home in 1843. Fascinating but errs on longwinded.

That leaves Last Orders and A Fine Balance. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully penned, deceptively simple story from Swift, I still feel that Rohinton Mistry’s book is one of the finest shortlisted not to have won the Booker. It may have been criticised for condensing all India’s ills of the time into the world of four connected characters, but it is this very humanity that makes A Fine Balance a very fine balance of a novel. So, as far as I am concerned, the judges in 1996 got it wrong. Mistry, Swift and Deane were my books of choice from the shortlist.

‘Reading in the Dark’ by Seamus Deane


Irish poet and academic Seamus Deane’s evocative novel is a masterfully told story of childhood, a fragment of the ordinary within the extraordinary – an unnamed boy growing up catholic in sectarian Derry in Northern Ireland in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

Violence, sectarian division, prejudice are part of the everyday as friends, family, priests, teachers, police come and go through the family home in a working-class area of the city. It is the position of authority and power that is a central theme throughout Reading in the Dark, whether it is State, Church or family.

But Deane chooses not to overly dwell on the mundane day-to-day – his main focus is the boy’s discovery of the family secret. Living close to the border within a nationalist family and with an uncle (Eddie, his father’s older brother) having disappeared many years earlier, it’s unquestionably political, involves a number of people within the close-knit catholic neighbourhood and is therefore safer left unsaid.

The death of his maternal grandfather provides our narrator with more than an insight into the secret, so much so that it drives an emotional wedge between him and his parents. He’s aware his mother has been told the full story. Burdened with the knowledge, she cannot speak of it, So broken was my father’s family that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire.

It’s a vibrant tale, a fine story of growing up in post World War II told in short, staccato chronological episodes each with minimalist, precise titles (‘Mother’, ‘Sergeant Bourke’, ‘The Feud’). In this way Deane introduces significant key characters and important events, each adding to the bigger story.

It’s beautifully written with a surprising lightness of touch considering its subject matter. But as the story evolves and the narrator grows and his mother withdraws more and more into her own head, Reading in the Dark continues to slowly push in the knife to what is now an open wound. Derry itself is a dark place where trust is balanced on a knife-edge even within the family.

Tender and tough in turns, sensitive yet confronting, Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize but lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.

‘The Van’ by Roddy Doyle

13452626Thirty or so years ago, in modern parlance, Roddy Doyle was trending. His first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, had successfully transferred to the big screen. And the third in the Barrytown Trilogy, The Van, was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. (Doyle went on to win the Booker two years later with Paddy Ha Ha Ha).

But today, the working-class Barrytown vernacular of the Rabbitte family wears thin. The ups and downs of these Dublin residents and friends have been charted throughout the trilogy – with the expectation that with such low personal and communal esteem, everything is doomed to failure. And whereas previous Barrytown narratives have focussed on the younger members, The Van looks to the older generation of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and mate Bimbo.

They’ve both been laid off from work – Jimmy Sr from the off, Bimbo about a quarter into the book.

Hearing and seeing the previous family breadwinner cope with his diminished responsibility is the strength of The Van – a man bought so low he relies on his teenage son slipping him a fiver so that he can afford to buy a round at the pub (as long as there’s only himself, Bimbo and Bertie).

Jimmy Sr spends his endless days lost – checking out the library, playing with his grandchild, walking the dog – and without any sense of purpose. It changes when Bimbo gets laid off from the bakery: Jimmy can share his new found knowledge of the area. But it’s a hollow victory. Both men soon become lost and aimless.

And then Bimbo buys the decrepit van and goes into partnership with Jimmy Sr. A fish and chip business just in time for the World Cup (as long as they can get it clean) with plans to set themselves up outside the pub or prime coastal spots. Against the odds, it’s a financial windfall for both men in spite of the low quality goods they’re serving through the hatch.

But it’s Bimbo’s wife, Maggie, who has the business acumen. Decisions are made without any reference to Jimmy: but then Bimbo bought the van, so is it a real partnership? Enclosed in cramped conditions, temperatures rise and their relationship shifts and changes.

Farcical humour abounds as Jimmy and Bimbo slip and slide through the narrative (literally – a little too much chip fat, ketchup and oil gets spilt in the confines of the van) or a gang of kids rock the vehicle ‘for the crack’. But, overall, it just ain’t funny.

Pints (in great quantities) are drunk; comments are made about friends, neighbours, passing females; food is served along with a volley of wisecracks; the achievements of the Irish football team celebrated – all in a novel that is predominantly dialogue. ‘Hilarious’, ‘wonderfully funny’, ‘faultless comic writing’ are all plaudits writ large on the cover.

Maybe in the 90s it was. But tastes [sic] change and The Van is as hard on the palate as the burgers Jimmy and Bimbo serve up. Doyle’s novel was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, but lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘Vernon God Little’ by DBC Pierre

9780571215164An assured debut novel, Vernon God Little is a rites-of-passage full of sour and coruscating verbal wit that verges on the farcical. Akin to the vicious satire of the likes of Vonnegut, it’s a telling indictment of small town America’s mindless consumer culture and the glorification of dysfunction – with 15 year-old Vernon Little its victim. As the narrator, it’s Vernon and his perspective of his 15 minutes of fame that the story is told.

A gun tragedy at the High School in Martirio, Texas has left 16 students dead, including the perpetrator, schoolboy Jesus Navarro Rosario. But with Jesus dead, the grieving town is left without a sense of closure or justice. Cue Vernon God Little. As the killer’s best friend, he survived, evidence of his guilt. As national media descend on the town, so the Sheriff’s department move on Vernon to prove his collusion.

Vernon God Little is told in five acts, with the first two finding Vernon – like his friend, Jesus, an outsider in the close-knit community – struggling to make sense of what’s happening around him. Accused of being an accessory, the only people he cares about are either dead or appear to be more concerned with fame and worldly goods (his mother misses all legal appointments due to the delivery of a fridge). Cool as he thinks he might be, Vernon in reality is a mere boy way out of his depth of understanding. And it’s about to get a lot worse as news crews swarm into town.

Things do get a lot worse as Vernon makes a run for it and flees to Mexico, but his too brief sojourn sees him arrested, returned to Texas to face trial for 34 murders and, on being found guilty, is sentenced to death.

Farcical or what? Yet beneath that over-the-top course of events is a scathing critique as reality television, fast food, religion, the death penalty all come under Pierre’s comic microscope.

In spite of being in Mexico, Vernon is positively identified for more and more murders across Texas. A reality television programme is introduced where death-row inmates are put on camera as entertainment with television audiences deciding the order of executions – which in themselves are televised.

In Vernon Little, Australian DBC Pierre has created a fabulously confused commentator who is in part an archetypal contradictory adolescent, part mouthpiece for the author’s corrosive opinions.

The high-octane Vernon Little God won the 2003 Booker Prize a rank outsider when the longlist was announced, beating favourite Monica Ali and Brick Lane.

‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Toibin


To say Colm Toibin’s 2012 novella is controversial is an understatement. The Catholic World Report described it, on publication, as the latest piece of Catholic-hating detritus and stated May God yet forgive and save the eternally precious soul of the profoundly sad and angry author of this tragic, worthless lie.

Yet The Testament of Mary had already received a degree of critical mauling when it first appeared as a solo stage performance in 2011 at the Dublin Theatre Festival and, in 2013, on Broadway. Protestors asserted the depiction of Mary was blasphemous, with the production closing after only two weeks into its scheduled 12-week run.

The novella was written following the initial performances in Dublin, with the language and imagery reportedly significantly starker. The result is hard going, in spite of its brevity of just 104 pages.

This is not an overly religious tract or a rewriting of stories and gospels from the New Testament. Toibin is writing of a mother’s pain and loss as, as an old woman living far from her home, she reflects on the days leading up to the death of her son. For her own safety, Mary fled her home in Nazareth and now lives the last of her days in Ephesus (modern day Turkey), far from friends and family.

Toibin’s Mary is not pious or pliant (the traditional presentation) – if anything she is angry. Her son (she never uses his name) was surrounded by misfits, only children, stammerers, men who could not look women in the eye. Witnessing the inhumanity of the crucifixion and the humiliation of being forced to drag his own cross, the fact that he died to redeem the world was, for Mary, not worth it.

The Testament of Mary is just that – the voice of a mother grieving over the loss of a son – not only in death but also in life, taken as he was to greater things. She comments on some of the better known Biblical stories – the raising of Lazarus, turning water into wine – with a level of cynicism in keeping with the scepticism of the author.

But this aside, the musings in her grief and guilt maketh not a particularly interesting novella. The problem with The Testament of Mary is, like the last days of Mary’s life, exceedingly dull. It may be well written (as one would expect from such a consummate penman) but its ultimately plain boring.

Colm Toibin made the shortlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize (his third) but lost out not to the bookies favourite, Jim Crace and Harvest, but New Zealand author Eleanor Catton and her mammoth 800+ page epic, The Luminaries.

‘Breakfast on Pluto’ by Patrick McCabe


I completely lost patience with this (thankfully short) novel.

Breakfast on Pluto is the dysfunctional story of Patrick ‘Pussy’ Braden, a transvestite living in the Irish village of Tyreelin near to the border with Northern Ireland. It follows her story (and fantasies) as, in her search for the perfect man who will keep her in clothes from Biba and Chanel Number 5 (it’s set in the 70s and early 80s), she moves to London. But life as a prostitute and, lately, a target for the police in their search to apportion blame for the spate of IRA bombings in the city, she returns to Ireland.

It’s not the story itself that’s the problem – it’s the chosen style of author Patrick McCabe. Macabre and grotesque in tone, the dark humour is delivered at a manic, hysterical pace with no sense of continuity.

In the space of a few pages, Pussy fantasises about exacting revenge on her father (the parish priest), searching for her beautiful birthmother (a spitting image of Mitzi Gaynor) and pleasing the latest sugar daddy. Stylistically, her madcap fantasies reflect the emotional helter-skelter of Pussy herself. And mixed with Pussy’s everyday are the political events of the ‘troubles’ in Ireland at the time – the execution of informers, bombing campaigns.

But Breakfast on Pluto falls short in emotional engagement. Manic in its delivery, there’s a lack of connection with Pussy or any of the other (sketchily presented) characters. You want to like her, but the book gives very little help. And the humour lauded by critics (“wild, hilarious, merciless…” The Sunday Independent) generally passed me by – again! (It seems I have a ‘problem’ with books written in the 90s that are labelled in some way as funny – see Paddy Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle) and Under the Frog (Tibor Fischer).

Patrick McCabe’s second Booker Prize shortlist, Breakfast on Pluto lost out to Ian McEwan and Amsterdam at the 1998 awards.