Best Books of 2018

Paul Norris 8 January 2019
Image Credit: Pexels
(Please note: this article contains discussion of sexual violence and suicide.)


Milkman, Anna Burns

Like A Fading Shadow, Antonio Muñoz Molina (trans. Camilo A. Ramirez)

Women Talking, Miriam Toews


A Goodreads review complains that Milkman contains too many lists. Names of objects reeled off without explanations. This complaint is nonsensical not only because it is factually untrue, but because no book can escape the list. The list is fiction’s skeleton: a novel reduced to its barest essentials is a collection of lists. A list of events. A list of characters. A list, perhaps, of themes. The list’s vertical trajectory is the closest prose gets to lineation. Most of a poetry book is blank space, and so is most of a receipt. Emptiness which doesn’t say what isn’t there, but says that everything is.

These are the objects James Earl Ray had when he was arrested for killing Martin Luther King:

A Liberty Chief .38 revolver. A Polaroid camera. A hi-fi deluxe transistor radio. A Noveline trench coat. A brown wool suit. A blue hat. A blue shirt. A jacket and a pair of sport pants. Two pairs of sunglasses.

The list goes on, and for a long time, but in Like A Fading Shadow we are not bored because many of these items have travelled with Ray from Memphis to Mexico, and from London to Lisbon. They are the marks of his liberty, possessions gained from robbery which he will lose in prison, but they are also dangerous, providing continuity between each sighting of him and making it more likely he will be recognised. Lists of items like these are the origin of Like A Fading Shadow: the book became possible when the FBI’s case notes on the search for Ray were declassified. So their significance is not so much what they have meant to Ray, but what they mean to Molina as he pores over them at the beginning of the novel, ‘hypnotised by the laptop’s glow’, and when he finally sees some in the National Civil Rights Museum (a pocket radio, the Liberty Chief revolver, the rifle used to kill King, an imitation of the ’66 Mustang in which Ray drove away from the crime scene).

Parallel to the story of Ray on the run is the story of Molina’s various trips to Lisbon, first while writing Winter in Lisbon, then as he researches what will become Like A Fading Shadow. The two men walk Lisbon alone, both haunted by their imaginations. While Ray imagines capture by the 3,000 FBI agents on his tail, Molina imagines lovers catching sight of each other in passing train carriages, and rivals fighting on clifftops. Both are on the run. The nature of Ray’s escape is obvious; Molina is fleeing his wife and family in a less direct way. Ray’s time in Lisbon lasts ten days; Molina’s visits to the city span a lifetime. One could conclude that the similarities between the two men are superficial, comprising similar items in their possession which ultimately suggest nothing deeper. While Molina lucidly explores the fluctuations of his own mood and sense of his place the world, Ray remains impenetrable. The novel does not speculate about his mind beyond the objects, places and people it perceived. But the implausibility of the comparison only attests to the power of the novel (both this novel and The Novel).

Lists in Milkman express not only what’s there but what can’t be. In a community in an unnamed city, a couple keep a list of prohibited names:

The names not allowed were not allowed for the reason they were too much of the country ‘over the water’, with it no matter that some of those names hadn’t originated in that country but instead had been appropriated and put to use by the people of that land. The banned names were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoinments and resisted impositions as laid down long ago in this country by that country, with the original nationality of the name now not in the running at all. The banned names were: Nigel, Jason, Jasper, Lance, Percival, Wilbur, Wilfred, Peregrine, Norman, Alf, Reginald, Cedric, Ernest, George, Harvey, Arnold, Wilberine, Tristram, Clive, Eustace, Auberon, Felix, Peverill, Winston, Godrey, Hector, with Hubert, a cousin of Hector, also not allowed.

The list goes on. It doesn’t take long to recognise the unnamed city, and with it the country over the water and the age-old conflict. But Belfast, Ireland, Britain, the IRA, the Ulster Constabulary, Catholics and Protestants go unnamed. This doesn’t universalise the story, if anything it makes it seem more specific to the narrator’s point of view, liberating the personal from the political. So when the narrator (known only as ‘middle sister’) is stalked by an IRA member, the reader sees the organisation not through his or her pre-existing opinion, but as a violent, patriarchal gang. This unwanted suitor gives the book its title: he is Milkman, though not actually a milkman, an ingenious non-name which suggests how integrated the IRA is into the community. Political violence is as everyday as grocery shopping. The IRA extorts money, buries weapons in people’s gardens, and kills with impunity.

The great strength of Milkman, and doubtless the reason it won the Man Booker, is its narrator; the book is shaped by her speech. Sentences run on excitedly, pause for breath, then resume the chase. Episodes stop midway for long explanations of narrative or political background, detours which themselves become some of the book’s most memorable moments (the community discovering a mound of murdered dogs, for instance). Middle sister’s digressiveness recalls Molly Bloom, while her detachment has hints of Moll Flanders, but the voice is entirely her own.

And the voice is often terrified: middle sister is trapped between the disapproval of the community, the threat of the army, and the power of the IRA. She is threatened at gunpoint, beaten and poisoned. And the voice is not as defiant as one might hope, generally taking an attitude of detachment. This is not always convincing: at times her refusal to tell anyone about the Milkman’s unwanted attention reads more like plot contrivance than character development. But it doesn’t matter much if all the pieces don’t fit together: the book perfectly evokes its oppressive setting, and gives enough hints of redemption and resistance not to be completely crushing.

In any tyrannical patriarchy, the list of banned objects is long, and knowledge in particular is regulated: middle sister draws the curtains to conceal the British newspapers her precocious younger sisters are reading (to ‘understand the other side’s point of view’). A Bentley supercharger is off-limits for middle sister’s maybe-boyfriend, ostensibly because it is a British icon. In the Molotschna Colony (based on a rigidly religious Bolivian Mennonite colony) of Women Talking, maps are banned. A clock is confiscated by Peters, the community’s bishop, ostensibly because time should be left in God’s hands. In Milkman, the IRA care more about the money from the supercharger’s sale than maybe-boyfriend’s political allegiances. And Peters puts the clock in his office.

This act of hypocrisy is far from the worst crime committed by patriarchy in Molotschna. The book centres on a group of women who have been repeatedly raped during the night, having been drugged in their rooms by a bovine tranquiliser. Horrifyingly, this backstory is true: between 2006 and 2009, hundreds of women in a Bolivian Mennonite colony were raped by their own menfolk. Although victims woke up groggy and in pain, they were often not believed. Peters first blames the devil, then the overexcited ‘female imagination’.

Women Talking is a fictionalised account of these women’s response to the crimes they have suffered. Toews herself describes the book as ‘both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination’. The story encompasses two days of meetings in an attic, where the women discuss whether they should flee or stay and fight. When one of their husbands finds them, the women pretend to knit. The discussion is compelling because there is no right answer, both options carrying their own dangers and benefits. Some women refuse to attend the meeting because they prefer things to carry on as before. One, called Salome, has tried to kill the perpetrators with a scythe; afterwards, the men were arrested for their own protection.

I was surprised, given its title, that Women Talking is narrated by a man. August Epp is an outsider to the community. Having been exiled along with his parents as a child, he grew up in the UK, and only returned recently. He is not considered fully masculine: women are unashamed at taking off their shawls in front of him. Bilingual and almost androgynous, he is the perfect intermediary between the women’s conversation and English-language literature. None of the women can write, and they speak only  Plautdietsch. August often apologises for the inadequacy of his translations in parentheses, a reminder that we can only have limited access to the lives we are reading about.

There is a pathos to August’s suicidal self-doubt and unrealised desire for one of the women, Ona, a counter-current to the extreme horror of the rapes. He is an example of masculinity malfunctioning in an opposite way to the rapists: while they act too readily on their impulses and regard women as worthless, August is too restrained, and too reifying (he concludes that Ona will ‘my Polaris, my Crux, my north and south and east and west’ even if they cannot be together). Both dysfunctions are violent: the rapists’ violence directed at others, August’s at himself.

Women Talking begins and ends with lists. First there is a list of the characters and their families, which makes the book read a little like a closet drama. And finally there is August’s list of things referred to in the meetings, ranging from nature (‘Sun,’ and ‘Straw.’) to society (‘Language,’ and ‘Women.’) The list is

listing, listless. The origin, liste, from Middle English, meaning desire. Which is also the origin of the word ‘listen.’

August spends most of the novel listening, as do we. Listening and desiring. Fiction is often an escape, but these three novels confront the reader with bald statements of fact, bold statements of suffering. The cause is generally masculinity gone wrong. Milkman’s narrator doesn’t like twentieth century novels because she doesn’t like the twentieth century. But you don’t have to like the twenty-first century to like these books, because they don’t evince much love for the way things are. You just listen and desire that it could be different.