Burns’ style can make for tough sledding, but the intensity of her material justifies the effort.


A coruscating tale of family and trauma first published in Britain in 2007 by the National Book Critics Circle Award– and Booker Prize–winning author of Milkman.

Burns’ Milkman was the surprise breakout literary novel of 2018: A story about one young woman’s attempt to navigate Northern Ireland’s Troubles, its style was challenging and at times maddeningly recursive but also showcased Burns’ knack for black comedy and skill at conjuring an atmosphere of paranoia. In retrospect, this novel reads like a rehearsal for that triumph; it’s a touch clunkier, at times more confusing than beguiling, but speaks to her ability to write about violence in powerful and unconventional ways. The story turns on the Doe family, whose gangster patriarch, John, is the sun around which various offspring, girlfriends, and hangers-on orbit. Most of them have names that start with “J”—Janet, Jetty, Jotty, Janine, Julie, Johnjoe, JerryJudges—which makes the relationships hard to parse. But the tactic is intentional; incest and other forms of sexual abuse are central (if slowly revealed) themes, underscoring how callously and interchangeably people (usually women) are treated. More directly, the story turns on Jetty, one of John’s girlfriends, going on a mad spree to acquire a gun to exact revenge after feeling betrayed by him. Her actions set in motion a series of revelations about family and small-town secrets. The puckish, unnamed narrator explores this milieu with dark irony (“he was now initiating his first beating of a proper adult woman”). But Burns has deep reserves of empathy too, writing about one woman who stocks up on self-help books she’s too terrified to read and depicting a family so consumed by “Noises” (i.e., memories of abuse) that it feels helpless. “Violence—and by the bucketload—kept the Noises away.”

Burns’ style can make for tough sledding, but the intensity of her material justifies the effort.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-64445-013-0

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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This is good Hemingway. It has some of the tenderness of A Farewell to Arms and some of its amazing power to make one feel inside the picture of a nation at war, of the people experiencing war shorn of its glamor, of the emotions that the effects of war — rather than war itself — arouse. But in style and tempo and impact, there is greater resemblance to The Sun Also Rises. Implicit in the characters and the story is the whole tragic lesson of Spain's Civil War, proving ground for today's holocaust, and carrying in its small compass, the contradictions, the human frailties, the heroism and idealism and shortcomings. In retrospect the thread of the story itself is slight. Three days, during which time a young American, a professor who has taken his Sabbatical year from the University of Montana to play his part in the struggle for Loyalist Spain and democracy. He is sent to a guerilla camp of partisans within the Fascist lines to blow up a strategic bridge. His is a complex problem in humanity, a group of undisciplined, unorganized natives, emotionally geared to go their own way, while he has a job that demands unreasoning, unwavering obedience. He falls in love with a lovely refugee girl, escaping the terrors of a fascist imprisonment, and their romance is sharply etched against a gruesome background. It is a searing book; Hemingway has done more to dramatize the Spanish War than any amount of abstract declamation. Yet he has done it through revealing the pettinesses, the indignities, the jealousies, the cruelties on both sides, never glorifying simply presenting starkly the belief in the principles for which these people fought a hopeless war, to give the rest of the world an interval to prepare. There is something of the implacable logic of Verdun in the telling. It's not a book for the thin-skinned; it has more than its fill of obscenities and the style is clipped and almost too elliptical for clarity at times. But it is a book that repays one for bleak moments of unpleasantness.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1940

ISBN: 0684803356

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1940

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