In her third novel, which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Burns (Little Constructions, 2007, etc.) writes again about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, delivering a blistering feminist perspective on a community at war.
With an immense rush of dazzling language, Burns submerges readers beneath the tensions of life in a police state. It’s “the great Seventies hatred,” ostensibly in Belfast (where Burns was born), where “two warring religions” have endured “eight hundred years of the political problems.” Daringly, the novel’s 18-year-old narrator, known only as “middle sister,” claims that “every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, [she] preferred to walk home reading[her] latest book.” Her father’s dead. She’s one of 10 children. She has a job and a boyfriend she might move in with, studies French, and helps her mother with her three precocious little sisters. But in recent months, “one of our highranking, prestigious dissidents,” known in the district as the “sinister, omniscient milkman,” has decided to stalk her, a nasty business that has ended thanks to his being “shot by one of the state hit squads.” His death ignites the tale, told in short jumps forward and backward in time, as the teenage narrator navigates the near-lethal rumor that she’s actually dating milkman and has joined “the groupies of these paramilitaries.” Less a coming-of-age story than a complex psychological portrait of Dostoyevskian proportion, each page bursts (at times repetitively) with inventive, richly detailed depictions of how “gossip, secrecy and communal policing” warp life doubly for those fighting injustice under an occupying foreign power. Burns was living on government assistance when she won the Man Booker, and her portrait of the way women, queer people, and the mentally ill in poverty eke out moments of joy despite intense surveillance, curfews, snipers, car bombs, and throat-cuttings is gripping and full of survivors’ humor.
A deeply stirring, unforgettable novel that feels like a once-in-a-generation event.