I wasn't long into this Man Booker Prize winning book of 2018, when I realised that it was set in 1970s Northern Ireland, probably Belfast. Although nothing is named, the place 'over the water' and the people who live 'over the road', who follow 'the other religion' was very reminiscent of The Troubles as I remember them. I was living in Liverpool, close to Northern Ireland, and I still have childhood memories of such terms as 'kneecapping', 'car bombs' and 'paramilitary'. And the more I read, the more my belief was reinforced.
The protagonist is an unnamed teenage girl who is expected to live in a certain way and at least be married - a matter of concern to her mother. From a large family (unmentioned, but Irish Catholic) she is the middle sister and always referred to as such. In times like these the idea is to become almost invisible, as drawing attention to oneself usually ends up in death, maiming or disappearing completely.
The problem with the girl is that she draws unwanted attention because she dares to be different. She likes reading outdoors, learning new languages and studying the antiquities instead of looking for a husband. She gains the interest of someone called 'Milkman' who is not actually a milkman. The real milkman is called... 'Real Milkman'.
Initially the namelessness of every character was quite confusing (Third Brother-in-Law, Second Sister, Tablet Girl) but after a while it's easy to follow. The anonymity of the characters in the narrative cleverly reflects the desire for the people's need for obscurity. In the end, it becomes quite amusing, alongside the gossip and conclusions folk arrive at as they try to decipher the coming and goings of everyone. Eventually the gossip, rumours and suspicions take on a paranoid and dangerous flavour.
There are some dark aspects to this book, even aside from the topic of terrorism in Ireland, with a particularly graphic and disturbing scene regarding dogs. The narrative is at times difficult, not because of the vocabulary but the use of longs sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Sometimes the internal monologue covers ideas regarding the times, sometimes not, and occasional jumps in time, which disrupt the flow. Most of the story is retold in reported speech, thus taking the immediacy out of the tale. Fundamentally, this is an eloquent depiction of oppression that could happen anywhere.
This is no doubt an original book both in subject matter and style. This approach, effective as it is, makes the story drag in places and the book seems longer than actually is. However, it is worth pursuing to the end when the quirkiness and intelligence of this work shines through.
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Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018
Winner of the International Dublin Literary Award 2020
Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Women's Prize for Fiction, and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction
Published by Faber & Faber on 15 May 2018.
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