Ireland Posts

“Milkman” by Anna Burns

Man Booker Prize winner 2018 Anna Burn’s novel Milkman is about a nameless eighteen-year-old narrator, most often referred to as the “reading-while-walking” girl who prefers to read nineteenth rather than twentieth century literature because she does not like the twentieth century. Milkman is set in a nameless Irish city —-p robably Belfast just as the era is never confirmed. It is about the city caught in the battles between the IRA, the Renouncers and the British Army possibly during the 1970s judging by the clues peppered throughout the story. It is about the girl observing and commenting upon her neighbourhood. Unfortunately she begins to be stalked by the forty-one-year-old “Milkman” — not the real one. ( The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates. ) Then to her dismay tongues begin to wag and even her mother is not willing to believe her — that there is no truth in the rumours being circulated. Immediately after winning the prize Anna Burns was quoted as saying “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions … I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”

Milkman was many years in the making and is the stuff literary legends are made of. The fifty-six-year-old Anna Burns acknowledging the fairy tale Booker win said “‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’” It is an extraordinary novel for very early on in the story it is as if the reader is an invisible companion to the narrator observing the proceedings with insights into how they think. There are large portions of the narrative that are running text, a single paragraph that runs across pages, which at first may seem daunting to read but is not so. Very often Milkman is being referred to as being Beckettian but Anna Burns clarifies in her interviews that she only read Samuel Beckett once her novel had been written. Whereas in fact it would be worthwhile to notice how the form of her prose, the fluidity of it, the mildly digressing style while observing and reporting incidents dispassionately, and at other times conveying neighbourhood gossip and events as is, in a detached dead pan manner, without any analysis is ultimately a very womanly quality.

Milkman is much like the commentary many women inevitably internalise. The novel merely makes visible that which is mostly kept out of public spaces for women as it would be mostly perceived as idle chatter. It is also remarkable how effectively Anna Burns portrays a reading-while-walking girl who is in all likelihood absorbed in her book but is also able to observe the landscape and people around her as she walks past. There is violence which she acknowledges in many interviews post-Booker win were because of the Ireland she grew up in. There is a particularly horrific and violent scene involving the butchering of dogs and left in a pile. In The New Statesman interview she says:

… I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The remarkable effect Milkman has upon its readers is for its relevance to the #MeToo movement is purely coincidental as Anna Burns has reiterated this novel was completed in 2014, well before the movement began. At the same its powerful impact is for its visibilisation of the silences most women are trained to inculcate. Most often women across cultures are socially conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves and conform to what is expected of them. Also their word is very likely dismissed especially when it involves as in the case of a creepy, older man, a stalker, who also happens to belong to the IRA. So the young narrator gets pushed more and more into a corner with everyone including her mother disbelieving her about the false rumours being circulated about her and the milkman. Also by resorting to use the interior monologue style of writing for most part of the novel Anna Burns makes the reader privy to the innermost thoughts of the girl thereby stripping away any pretence the narrator may “normally” have adopted in real life.

There are so many portions in the story that will resonate with women readers while being revelatory to male readers. As novelist Idra Novey points out in her Paris Review essay “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature” ( 4 Oct 2018) it is the silences that are critical in literature — what is glossed over and that which is hidden from view.

Though the story [Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”] was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

It is exactly this silencing of the women that has remained quietly hidden away from the “public” view —- a view that has been mostly defined by patriarchal codes of conduct. Although these sorts of conversations, thoughts and ideas being expressed freely now in literature are and have always been familiar to women.

Milkman is a powerful book that begs to be read widely.

To buy the Milkman on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Kindle 

26 Oct 2018 

 

Hannah Kent’s “The Good People”

Australian writer Hannah Kent’s second novel The Good People is about three women – Nora (Honora Leahy), Nance (Anne Roche) and Mary — in early nineteenth century rural Ireland, County Kerry. Nora was recently widowed who had been left the care of her four-year-old grandson, Michael Kelliher. A wild, crabbed child no heavier than the weight of snow upon a branch. A clutch of bones rippling with the movement of wind on water. Thistle-headed. Fierce-chinned. Small fingers clutching in front of him as though the air were filled with wonders and not the smoke of the fire and their own stale breath. The constant attention he demanded accompanied by his shrill needfulness exhausted Nora. She decided to hire a young girl to help her on the farm but be the primary caregiver to Michael. Fourteen-year-old Mary Clifford, tall and thin-faced, used to minding children having looked after her eight siblings agrees to work. She does the household chores and looks after the grandson.

When Nora’s husband, Martin, died suddenly while digging ditches Nance made an unexpected appearance during the wake to keen. Her entrance had been met with silence as none ever imagined she would show up at the cottage but she did.

Nance had never become accustomed to the way conversation stopped in her presence. It was one thing to enter a wake house and have the company fall into respectful silence It was another to move through a crowded yard in the pricked air of others’ wary regard and to hear laughter at her back. They made her feel like nothing more than a strange old woman plucking herbs, her eyes clouded with age and the smoke of her own badly-fired hearth. No matter that some of these men came to her with their carbuncles and congested lungs, or lay their wheezing children by her fire. In the broad light of day, amidst the noise of industry, their stares made her feel scorned and feeble.

Nance lived alone up in the hills close to where the Good People lived– Piper’s Grave, where the fairies dwelt. She was considered to have knowledge and magical powers that could help cure people of ills. Sometimes, in the company of suffering, Nance felt things. Maggie [ her aunt] had called it an inward seeing. The knowledge. Sometimes as she guided babies from their mothers and into the world, she sensed what their lives would be like, and sometimes the things she sensed frightened her.

Martin would care for his crippled grandson gently and be empathetic towards his condition but his wife had little time. Their daughter Johanna died leaving her son in the care of her husband, Tadgh. After a while unable to care for Michael, Tadgh left the child in the care of his maternal grandparents. After Martin’s death Nora became convinced that the Good People had taken away her real grandson and in his place left this cretin, a changeling. Soon instead of referring to him by his name she began referring to him as “it”. Nora first took him to Father Healy for healing but when he refused she took him across to Nance hoping she could help recover her true grandson— as she remembered him at the age of two laughing and playing. Despite Mary’s misgivings the two older women decided to “put the fairy of out of it”. During the treatment (which included administration of foxglove juice notorious for slowing down heartbeat) Mary was worried about the child and of the repercussions but did not stop the women. Once it was evident the treatment was clearly not going the way expected Mary ran to the neighbours and gave an account of the events. From there on it happened quickly as witnessed by the community. When they spotted the police returning from Nance, they wondered whether all three had been in league with the fairies, blinking the valley and thinning the butter in the churns, killing animals for devilment. Setting piseogs [ superstition] against the priest. It did not take long. By sunfall the valley was humming. An accusation had been brought against Nora Leahy, Mary Clifford and Nance Roche. The fairy cretin Nora had hidden from sight had been drowned in the river, and they were calling it murder.

The Good People is set in 1825-26 just before Catholic Emancipation, a process in Great Britain and Ireland that involved reducing and removing many of the restrictions on Roman Catholics. The most significant measure was the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which removed the most substantial restrictions on Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom that had been imposed with Reformation. Hence in keeping with the intensified political campaign for Catholics the new priest, Father Healy, is far more strict about observance of church discipline and is not indulgent towards people like Nance who believe in the Good People or observe heathen rituals like keening at wakes. He preaches “We’re to be paying our pennies to the Catholic campaign, not to unholy keeners.” Later during a conversation with Nance he says, “The synod forbids professional keeners wailing at wakes as an unchristian practice. It is a heathenish custom and abhorrent to God.” To which Nance retorts “But the people here do be having a spiritual temper, Father. Sure, we all have faith in the things of the invisible world. We’re a most religious people.” Although Nance never attended Church on Sunday the village folk went regularly and she felt the impact. The parade of sickness to her door had thinned since Father Healy had preached against her. No doubt her patients concern for their souls was now greater than their anxiety over chapped hands or the fevers glittering through their children. Her days had emptied.

It is this space between reality, spiritual and mystical — inhabited by people even today –that Hannah Kent explores in her magnificent novel The Good People.While quoting W.B. Yeats in the dedication she says “When all is said and done, how do we not know but that our own unreason may be better than another’s truth?” As Nance’s aunt Mary had told her once ‘There are worlds beyond our own that we must share this earth with,…And there are times when they act on one another.” As with her award-winning debut Burial Rites, Hannah Kent’s second novel The Good People is historical fiction inspired by true legal events recorded in documents. As she says “This novel is a work of fiction, although it takes as its inspiration a true event of infanticide. In 1826, an ‘old woman of very advanced age’ known as Anne / Nance Roche was indicted for the wilful murder of Michael Kelliher / Leahy (newspaper accounts list different names) at the summer Tralee Assizes in Co. Kerry. Michael had been drowned in the river Flesk on Monday, 12 June 1826, and had reportedly been unable to stand, walk or speak.”

Despite being Australian Hannah Kent has chosen subjects of both her novels to be set in lands far away from what she is familiar with — Iceland and now Ireland. In the process she has shown extraordinary craftsmanship in creating incredibly marvellous stories. She discusses it in this podcast. As Graeme Macrae Burnet points out that The Good People can be a true example of crime fiction. In fact both her well-researched novels are structurally similar beginning with a traditional local ballad that captures a story relevant to the novel, being about women who are possibly headed to the gallows for a “crime” and by harking back to the past Kent comments on the present situation of women. Her fictional landscapes are inevitably set in periods before women’s rights were even recognised. Yet by raising issues of how challenging life can be for single women (whether by choice or widowhood) Kent highlights how little has changed in the twenty-first century. As Nance says “An old woman without a man is the next thing to a ghost. No one needs her, folks are afraid of her, but mostly she isn’t seen.”

Hannah Kent explores the grey area between logic and mysticism without intruding with an authorial voice and bearing judgement. To be impartial allowing the reader to create their own opinion of the case requires immense dexterity in creating the plot.  The Good People confirms Hannah Kent as a talented master craftsman.

Hannah Kent The Good People Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2017. 

Press Release: The Read Quarterly

The Read Quarterly  TRQ1-Pack-480x640

Neil Gaiman Kickstarter video and Eoin Colfer original fiction help launch The Read Quarterly.

The Read Quarterly (TRQ, www.thereadquarterly.com), the magazine launching in January 2016 to discuss the culture of children’s literature, has today revealed its first issue cover and has announced that the magazine will contain an original four-part Eoin Colfer story, Holy Mary, to be published through the first year. The Read Quarterly will be a forum in which global children’s literature can be discussed and debated. Created by children’s literature enthusiasts, each with a wealth of experience in the publishing industry, Sarah Odedina and Kate Manning, this quarterly magazine will provide an environment in which both writers and readers can share their enthusiasm, introduce new ideas and challenge old ones.

TRQ have also announced details of how to support the first issue of the magazine via Kickstarter and have revealed that Neil Gaiman has been instrumental in setting up that campaign, even recording a video for them to help push the crowd funding.

Sarah Odedina, one of the founders of the magazine, said “We have had such fantastic support since we announcedSarah Odedina The Read Quarterly.  We are excited by the Kickstarter campaign as we feel that its energy suits our magazine so perfectly. Support has already been flooding in from such luminaries as authors including Malorie Blackman and Neil Gaiman, publishers Neal Porter and Louis Baum and bookseller Melissa Cox. We look forward to growing our magazine to reflect the energy and drive that is so characteristic of the children’s literary scene around the world”.

To support the Kickstarter please go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/748565480/the-read-quarterly.  Pledges for the project start at £20 and you will receive not only Odedina and Manning’s undying gratitude and the joy of supporting the project from the start, but also exclusive prints, bags and original artwork.  From publication, the magazine will be stocked in bookshops and there is also a subscription service from issue two onwards.

Kate-ManningIf you are interested in stocking the magazine, please contact Kate Manning at kate@thereadquarterly.com.

An annual subscription costs £40. For more details please contact subscribe@thereadquarterly.com

For media enquires, please contact:

Kate Manning kate@thereadquarterly.com

 

List of some of the contents of Issue 1

So,we’re about to announce the details of how you can get behind issue 1 and it’s only fair we let you know what’s in the magazine we hope you want to support.

Here’s some of the content list for issue 1 of TRQ. We’re really excited about the wide range of articles and the amazing spread of contributors from around the world, and we hope you like them too. Admittedly, we get a sneak preview of what the articles are about, but hopefully the article titles are tantalising enough.

We have…

‘Hunting for the Birds: A Designer’s Memories of Childhood Reading’ by Stuart Bache, UK

‘Cinderella and a World Audience’ by Nury Vittachi, Hong Kong

‘The Last Taboo: What Interactive Prints Says About the Digital Revolution’ by Elizabeth Bird, USA

‘The Artisan Publisher: Tara Books, Chennai, India’ by Gita Wolf, India

‘A New Arabic Publishing Model’ by Kalimat Publishers, UAE

‘Children and the Magic of Bookshops’ by Jen Campbell, UK

From Institution to Market: Publishing for the African Child’ by Ainehi Edoro, Nigeria/USA

‘The Theme of Independence in Children’s Literature in India’ by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, India

‘The New Internationalists: The Changing Scene of Illustrated Books Published in the UK’ by Martin Salisbury, UK

‘A Singaporean Interpretation of Classic Children’s Stories’ by Myra Garces-Bacsal, Singapore

‘American Nonsense and the Work of Carl Sandburg and Dave and Toph Eggers’ by Michael Heyman, USA

‘The Work of Beatrix Potter and the Loss of Innocence‘ by Eleanor Taylor, UK

‘A Look at Translation’ by Daniel Hahn, UK

And that’s not all, we also have…

Original fiction (well, the the first of four parts) by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Adrienne Geoghegan, Ireland

Original poetry by Toni Stuart, South Africa

A comic strip explaining what Gary Northfield (UK) really hates drawing

An illustrator profile on Catarina Sobral (Portugal) who has illustrated our amazing first issue cover

AND

A Literary Crossword by Tristan Hanks, UK

9 October 2015 

 

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

I was asked by Asian Age to  interview Kalyan Ray and review his new novel, No Country. The review-cum-interview was published in the Sunday edition of Asian Age on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://wwv.asianage.com/books/looking-neverland-504 . I am c&p the article below.) 

no countryThis was no country the world outside cared to know.
(Page 469, No Country)

No Country, Kalyan Ray’s multi-generational second novel, spans nearly 200 years, several continents. Beginning with the murder of a couple of South Asian origin in 1989, it jumps back in time, to Mullaghmore, Sligo County, Ireland, 1843, and three friends — Padraig Aherne, Bridget Shaughnessy and Brendan McCarthaigh — whose lives become inextricably linked with the birth of Padraig and Bridget’s illegitimate daughter, Maeve. Bridget dies in childbirth after Padraig has sailed off to India, later to become a successful timber merchant, and Maeve is cared for by her paternal grandmother, Maire, who on her deathbed hands Maeve to “Papa” Brendan. The potato famine is on; the starving Irish flee to America on overcrowded ships. Papa Brendan and Maeve survive a shipwreck and arrive on a farm in Canada. From here the story moves to two continents, told by various narrators with different points of view, coursing its way through Canada, India, Bangladesh, famines, refugees in America, Ireland, Odessa, Poland… The zooming about is dizzy, and often characters pop up only to disappear soon — we meet Armenians in Calcutta; Padraig Ahern marries Kalidasi; the Easter Uprising of 1916 is reported in the Bengali papers two weeks after it happened, and that reconnects Padraig to his motherland; Padraig’s son and grandson Robert Ahern are caught in the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919; Jewish pogroms begin just when Jakob Sztolberg, a Polish Jew, marries Maeve; India’s Partition. Dizzying. But it flows smoothly.

Ray attributes his ability to weave various voices in various places to being “born into the rich oral culture of India.” “I have been deeply and permanently influenced by that. I grew up listening to a vast variety of folk stories, tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana, and have been fascinated by the story-telling techniques of the Pandavani. Even our folksongs are voices telling stories. All this colours my palette in conscious and unconscious ways,” he explains. According to him, the responsibility of the writer lies in making the reader sit up all night to read. “If you write about characters that you care deeply about then the reader will be mesmerised; that is the responsibility of the writer.” Ray says that he had to be “particularly careful” about the 10 distinct voices in his novel, ranging from 19th century rural Irish voices to those of Billy Swint of 1960s New York and Kush Mitra of the early 1990s.

Ray took an eight-month sabbatical from his teaching job to immerse himself in Irish literature of 1835-1847 — books, political Kalyan Raypamphlets, newspapers and posters. He said that “later historical research often challenged and corrected contemporary perceptions of events, but I needed to keep in mind that for a novelist, the early estimations, even rumours — especially early rumours — must mark the pigment on the canvas.” The novel is packed with delightful details. “I owed it to my readers to paint the past as vividly and accurately as I could, with its sights and sounds, contemporary opinions and mindsets. So I needed to use numerous books of history, memoirs, and contemporary journals… (I) put in a great deal of effort not to let the research show in the telling of the story…” Grafton Street in Ireland is pointedly described as being paved with wood, whereas most Irish streets were packed with sod. He learnt this tiny fact after “many hours spent often with a magnifying glass in hand peering into photographs of early Victorian-era cityscapes of Dublin, and at Irish landscapes of that period”.

Women are pivotal to the novel, yet they have been described only in terms of their sexuality and the choices they make after becoming pregnant (mostly out of wedlock). Though Maeve’s character develops logically, she comes across women often do in mythology — mostly just strong survivors of circumstances. Though she can read before she is four years old, she is never shown to be doing anything with her literacy. Instead, she swiftly adapts to farming. Ray says that he has been influenced by William Faulkner. Perhaps this slide of realism into myth comes from Faulkner.

Migrants don’t necessarily have the leisure to recall stories, occupied as they are in putting their lives together, making new friends, learning new language, culture. No Country tells their story. In an interview he gave to his publishers, Ray said, “I consider this story to be a seismic shrug, a novel that consists of individual migrations. These are stories about people looking for a country, a place where they could set roots but find it nowhere.” Ray too is a migrant, dividing his time between Kolkata and America. Paradoxically, No Country does not read like a story told by a migrant. Though I read the novel in two sittings, I remained dissatisfied with the outsider’s perspective.

Post 9/11, a noticeable shift in contemporary literature, particularly fiction, is an excessive stress on identities, akin to ghettoisation of literature according to ethnic, regional and religious identities, and literary criticism has always been preoccupied with genres. But No Country is refreshingly rich in multi-cultural diversity and is able to bringing out the commonality amongst migrants.

Kalyan Ray No Country Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2014. Pb. pp. 560. Rs. 599 

Hannah Kent, “Burial Rites”

Hannah Kent, “Burial Rites”

Burial Rites‘Actions lie,’ Agnes retorted quickly. ‘Sometimes people never stood a chance in the beginning, or they might have made a mistake….’ ( p.107 Burial Rites )

Burial Rites is Australian Hannah Kent’s debut novel. It is historical fiction about Icelander Agnes Magnusdottir who was condemned to death in 1829 for having killed her lover. The novel opens with the announcement of shifting the convict from prison to the farm of district officer Jon Jonsson, his wife, Margret and their two daughters. The story is very clearly divided into two sections — the first half consists of Agnes talking to the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson about her childhood, her life, staying on different farms till she met her master and lover, Natan; the second half is of her long conversation with Margret. The conversation with the priest happens in fits and starts, before they become sufficiently comfortable for the priest to be a patient listener, like a confessional. When he falls sick and is unable to come regularly to meet the prisoner, inadvertently Margaret who absolutely detests the idea of having the murderess under her roof, has a long conversation one night. Woman-to-woman, heart-to-heart talk. One week later Agnes is hanged. The last death sentence in Iceland till date.

In an article published on 4 June 2013 in the Guardian, Hannah Kent writes of the “loneliness of being a long-distance writer”. ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-culture-blog/2013/jun/04/burial-rites-writer-hannah-kent) . She wrote this novel as part of the creative component of her PhD. She had a idea what to write about but not sure how to go about it. She first “first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when I was an exchange student in the north of Iceland. It was 2002, I was 17 years old, and I had left Adelaide for Sauðárkrókur an isolated fishing village, where I would live for 12 months. This small town lies snug in the side of a fjord: a clutch of little buildings facing an iron-grey sea, the mountains looming behind.” ( A longer version of this article is in the literary journal, “Kill your darlings” of which Kent is an editor. http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/?post_type=article&p=9217 )

The story is based on true facts but the manner in which it is told leaves the readers wondering whether the the death sentence carried out was correct or not. Another powerful novel that concluded with the hanging of a woman prisoner is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles ( published in 1891). Burial Rites is written sparingly, without too many details and layers, and if first fiction with a new voice. There is the lightness of touch in the writing, where the research is obviously deep so as to create a landscape that is as authentic as can be to nineteenth century Iceland.

The manuscript was bought in summer 2012. According to Publisher’s Weekly, of 12 July 2012 ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-deals/article/52967-little-brown-pays-seven-figures-for-debut-novel-by-aussie-author.html) Judy Clain, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown, paid seven figures for North American rights to the novel, in a two-book deal. Dan Lazar at Writers House brokered the deal with Clain on behalf of Pippa Mason, the author’s Australian agent at Curtis Brown. Picador bought the book in Australia, and rights have also been sold in France, Italy, Brazil and The Netherlands. By June 2013, translation rights had been sold in 15 countries. Kent’s manuscript won, in 2011, the first Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Upon publication the novel has sold tremendously well in Australia and UK. Hopefully its presence on the longlist of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 announced earlier this month. ( http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/2014/baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-announce-their-2014-longlist ) It is a novel that deserves to be recognised, for the style of writing, for the detail and maturity that Hannah Kent shows in her story. She is now working on her second novel, set in Ireland. Her website is: http://hannahkentauthor.com

 

Hannah Kent Burial Rites Picador, Pan Macmillan, Australia, 2013. Hb. pp. 340. £12.99