Milkman by Anna Burns (Books 2019, 10)

Anna Burns's Milkman alongside a lemon
Anna Burns’s Milkman alongside a lemon

This is not mainly a book about The Troubles; nor about religion or politics, though it is about all of those. It's a book, above all, about gossip and rumour and silence, and the harm that those can do to a person, to a society.

The unique approach — no-one is named, almost no proper names appear — I found quite endearing. And far from obfuscating things, it many ways it makes the story easier to follow. Instead of having to remember whether Mary, Margaret or Roisin is the oldest sister, it's “first sister.” “Oldest friend;” “maybe-boyfriend.” Honestly, all books should be like this. Relationships are important, after all.

Though you can also see it as a sly reference to the common complaint about living in small communities, that you're always someone's daughter, someone's brother — never yourself.

Anyway, Booker Prize winner, and all. Dead good.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Books 2019, 10)

Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Books 2017, 5)

Yes, it’s halfway through the second-last month of the year and I’ve just finished my fifth book. Five in a year. That’s very poor. But this book was a large part of the reason for that.1

At over 1000 pages of very small text — close to a million words, I’ve heard — this is a mammoth work. It’s also really, really good.

As befits such a large work, it is a whole made of many parts. It’s split into three main sections, with each of those having eleven chapters; along with a “Prelude” and an “Afterlude.” The first is a series of short stories or vignettes, most of which are not obviously connected. They are all set in and around an area of Northampton called the Boroughs, at various times in the past and present.

In the second we find out what happened to Mick Warren, the closest thing we have to a protagonist, after he died aged three, before he came back to life again. The third brings it all together, after a fashion. Moore has always had trouble with endings — just consider the mighty Watchmen, whose ending was actually improved by the movie.

Did Alma Warren’s pictures save everything, and stop the destructor? Of course not: it always happened that way and always will. That’s the central thesis of the novel, the idea of eternalism, that time is static, and we only experience change because we happen to be moving along that axis at one second per second. This is of course similar to the viewpoint of Dr Manhattan in the aforementioned Watchmen, so we could suppose it’s a worldview that Moore has had for some time, though in his acknowledgements he suggests that he came to believe it during the years he was writing Jerusalem.

There is a chapter in book three that is written in the style of Joyce in his Finnegan’s wake days. It’s hard work to get through, but well worth it (though with hindsight if you were to skip that chapter I don’t think you’d miss much of the plot). Anyway, it’s a monster work, and well worth the time it takes to read.

  1. To be fair, spending a lot of time reading on the web, plus some reading comics, etc: these also need to be considered. []
Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Books 2017, 5)

British Summer Time, by Paul Cornell (Books 2008, 4)

Paul Cornell wrote some of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who‘s recent years: ‘Father’s Day’, and the ‘Human Nature’/’Family of Blood’ two-parter. After the latter, I downloaded and read the ebook of his original novel (on which the episodes were based). So I came to this with some knowledge of his writing.

But not with so much knowledge of his religious beliefs. I had some sense — from reading his blog, presumably — that he was religious, at least in a vague, Church-of-Englandy sort of way; but I didn’t expect, on picking this up, that it would have such a religious heart (or maybe ‘soul’ would be more appropriate).

Though I’m not sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury would quite approve — and I’m absolutely sure the Pope would not — of the theology.

It’s a fine story of a woman who can read the patterns of the world around her, a space pilot from the future (but is it ‘our’ future?), a disembodied head, and four mysterious ‘golden men’, who might be angels, might be the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, or might be something else. It’s an easy read, and I recommend it.

But does the religion get in the way of the story? No, not really; though it was something of a distraction at times for this atheist. It’s by no means preachy; indeed, you could argue that the religious interpretation of the events in the story is a misinterpretation. Though since that interpretation is the author’s, that would depend on where you stand on the whole postmodern thing about the author being irrelevant, and the reader entering into a dialogue with the text.

The question for me on a personal note is, would I have approached it differently – or read it at all – if I had known about the religious content before I started it?

The answer is, I would have approached it differently. And, if I hadn’t known the author’s work, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

By saying that, I’m convicting myself of being likely to prejudge religiously-inspired fiction; well, yes, guilty as charged. Just as I’m likely to prejudge romantic fiction, literary fiction, heroic fantasy, and so on. We don’t approach anything in a vacuum, after all. Our past experiences, our expectations, colour our understanding and appreciation of any art. And we all have our preferences.

Still, if I had known, and rejected this, I’d have missed out on something worthwhile. So that’s worth bearing in mind.

British Summer Time, by Paul Cornell (Books 2008, 4)

Homophobic Christians

I started writing this post while watching This Week again. This time they were talking, inevitably, about the new equal rights legislation (good legislation; from this government? Amazing.) The Catholic church is trying to have itself made exempt from the new law; and the Church of England has come out alongside it. Or at least John Sentamu has.

It looks like they’re going to be smacked down for now, which is good.

I was brought up as a Catholic, but I grew out of it, and am, like any sensible person, profoundly anti-religious now. And what I say to the Catholics who would try to destroy one of the few good, well-intentioned pieces of legislation that this government has brought in, is this:

We here in Britain are trying to build a tolerant, inclusive, multicultural society. If you can’t work within that, within the laws and regulations that govern adoption, then you shouldn’t be in the adoption business. And if you don’t like the way our society is developing, maybe you’d be happier elsewhere. I hear they’ve got quite a theocracy going in Iran.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop people saying the same to me, when I speak out against ID cards, for example. But that’s democracy for ya: full of contradictions.

And anyway, it could come to that yet.

Homophobic Christians