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Review: Anna Burns’ second novel on the Irish Troubles ... and our own

A book jacket for “Little Constructions,” by Anna Burns.
(HarperCollins)

A pitch-dark comedy on the wages of violence from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of “Milkman”

Welcome to Tiptoe Floorboard, a nasty little village, presumably in the North of Ireland, where the John Doe Community Centre Group enjoys a stranglehold over the town’s affairs. John Doe is the charismatic, hyper-violent leader of this criminal enterprise; he routinely tortures his enemies in the romper room hidden in the shed in his back garden, leaving their bodies in the kitchen for his children to find.

Thankfully, Tiptoe Floorboard, a.k.a. Tiptoe Under Greystone Cliff, isn’t a real place but the invention of Anna Burns, whose third and most recent novel, “Milkman,” won the 2018 Man Booker Prize — the first time it was awarded to a writer born in Northern Ireland. The success of “Milkman” has introduced new readers to the region’s troubled history, which has a peculiar tendency to creep into the present.

That success also led to the American release of “Little Constructions,” Burns’ second novel, first published in 2007 — a book that is shorter, darker and every bit as enthralling as her breakout success. Whereas “Milkman” concerns itself with the reification of rumor and innuendo in a city (likely Belfast) riddled with sectarian strife, in “Little Constructions” the focus is on the family and how trauma is passed from one generation to the next. And what a wild family it is.

John Doe is married to Janet Doe but having an affair with Janet’s sister Jetty, not to be confused with Jotty, who is one of John’s 10 siblings, most of whom will end up either in the graveyard or Tiptoe Under Greystone Cliff’s Peninsula Mental Asylum. Apparently, John’s infidelity runs in the family. John Doe’s father, John Doe Sr., also had extramarital relations with his wife’s sister, and the identity of her children has far-reaching implications for both the Doe clan and the novel.

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Further complicating the picture, there are two kinds of Does in Tiptoe Floorboard: “the Does by affinity and the Does by consanguinity.” Uncle Joe Doe isn’t John’s uncle but his left-hand man in the Community Centre Action Team or “Shed Gang.” John’s right-hand man, Johnjoe Doe, is actually a Harrison, but teaming up with John Doe apparently is like joining the Ramones — if the Ramones had a predilection for torture murder and were fond of using a Ouija board to root out informers.

The names are disorienting, but their anonymity avoids ascribing the gang’s criminal behavior to a particular faction (readers will bring their own biases to the book). The surname certainly suggests that these men and women were destined to wear a toe tag.

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Anna Burns, author of “Milkman” and “Little Constructions.”
(Eleni Stefanou)

Humor and death amble side by side, as when the murderers forget themselves in spooky stories: “They’d stop for a break, for example, whilst in the middle of killing somebody, and over the boiling kettle and KitKats, they’d begin a round of the latest ghost talk. They’d scare each other with their tales, to the point of forgetting they had a man tortured and three-quarters dead and tied to a chair just across the room from them.”

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The violence in “Little Constructions” is normalized to the same degree that gossip is weaponized in “Milkman.” This novel’s tone is slightly more high-pitched than the Booker winner, calling to mind a weird mixture of the gothic grotesqueries of Patrick McCabe’s novel “The Butcher Boy” and the saga of a bloodthirsty Celtic king of yore.

But Burns is less interested in the goons who perpetuate the cycle of violence than she is in following its victims. Here’s John Doe’s 15-year-old daughter, Julie, coming home during a break at her part-time job to find a dead body: “You walk in, and you don’t want to drop dead yourself from the up-close reality of it, so either you play a ruse upon yourself and say the dead body’s not there really, or else you take an aspect of the dead body that strikes you as normal and pretend to yourself that, because of this normality, everything else is the same as before.”

By pretending not to see what is right in front of her eyes, Julie is forced to become a bystander in her own home, hewing to what she considers the town’s credo: “If it’s happening to you then, thank God, it’s not happening to me.” If the atrocities she encounters are real, she’ll have to do something about them, and that’s much more frightening than a body on the floor. By denying the reality of these horrors, Julie can cope — at least until the psychic toll comes due.

In “Little Constructions,” reality is kept at arm’s length and everyone does their part to maintain the status quo. Therapists sit for decades with clients who never speak a word. The police are compromised and incompetent. Even the town government is unreliable, keeping an official record of Births, Deaths, and Rumors That Are Probably True. Meanwhile the citizens stagger about “in this dreadful abyss of brokenness, this dead valley of hopelessness, this nethermost pit of faithlessness.”

The novel’s narrator is an unnamed bystander, one who is intimate with every villager’s secret history — even the secrets they shelter from themselves — and whisks the reader forward and back across time to show us how the sins of the past manifest in the future. The narrator’s quintessentially Irish deadpan humor elevates the seriousness of Burns’ endeavor, making it more than just another bleak story about The Troubles. It’s a dizzying ride, by turns horrifying and hilarious, but exquisitely managed by Burns’ baroque but precise prose.

“Little Constructions” is a prayer not just for the people of Tiptoe Floorboard, but for towns just like it all over the world, scarred by violence and transformed into a place where the dead walk alongside the living, the living enfold themselves in little constructions, and the currency in which the community traffics is shame that stems from a trauma that refuses to be named.

Ruland’s next book, “Do What You Want” with the punk rock band Bad Religion, will be published in August.

Little Constructions

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Anna Burns

Graywolf: 336 pages; $16


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