Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Anna Burns may be the first Northern Ireland winner of the Man Booker Prize, but the province has always been fertile ground for fiction writing

 

In one sense, it is an enormous honour that a Belfast writer, Anna Burns, has won the Man Booker Prize for her novel, Milkman. An equally creditable response would be: isn't it about time?

For we have a huge tradition of fiction writing here. My own first encounter with the Belfast novel was through Brian Moore. He took me through adolescent uncertainty against the backdrop of the Belfast Blitz in The Emperor of Ice Cream, a young Catholic's first encounters with Protestants, cynical, work-shy men, jobsworths in the ARP and the IRA.

This was our local version of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a depiction of a boy's efforts to be an adult among adults who have not yet managed to be more than boys.

I first read it when I was the age of his character, struggling in much the same way. The Catholic school system, as I knew it, wasn't just as dark as the version of St Malachy's that he presented in The Feast of Lupercal. I suppose the thought of being sexually inexperienced at 37 was just too dark a prospect for me to empathise with. And he put a Belfast street onto the literary map in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

Her struggles with alcohol and loneliness occupied a Belfast I had not known before the emergence of the housing estates. Camden Street was yet to be the grubby flat-land of the university area, but a still respectable, slightly pretentious, area, where a woman falling apart might feel that she was still clinging to her dignity.

What I valued in Moore was that he was not replicating the Belfast of simple sectarian division. And it is true of our best writers that they don't fall back on the propagandist versions of life here, but unweave its complexity.

Some of the best novels doing this have come from Glenn Patterson. No 5 just told the story of a house over the years, as occupants changed, exploring racism, religion and family life.

What a novelist like Patterson does is open a window onto a Belfast that, in its ordinary everyday ways, defies the cliches and the image of the city that you would pick up from the news.

Which is not the same as avoiding the Troubles. In The International, Patterson took us back to the moment before this place came apart, in the International Hotel, where the SDLP was formed, to remind us of the character of the city then, the lightness of life here, the fact that the dark cloud that would cover us was not inevitable. And this is an important idea he develops in other books, the survival of simple humanity with ordinary concerns even while the city is viewed by the world as a warzone.

Frances Molloy took us into the life of a growing girl in the Derry countryside in No Mate For The Magpie. She wrote in dialect before the term "Ulster Scots" was coined and recreated life around a housing estate nicknamed "Korea", when Korea was the big story on the news on the wireless.

And this child grew up to contemplate being a nun and then to march to Burntollet, again, like Patterson, bridging the bad times with the times when Northern Ireland was not just like anywhere else, but distinctively amazing in ways far more interesting than you could know from newspapers and television.

Yet the Troubles were important. One of the most shocking depictions of what the violence was like is in Robert McLiam Wilson's description of a bomb explosion in Eureka Street. It just breaks into his story the way a real bomb would and yet he slows it all down to give us the lacerations by plate glass and the slow realisation of what is happening.

Eoin McNamee first appeared as a novelist who would look plainly at the full horror of the Troubles in Resurrection Man, but then went on to explore the undercurrents of this society by reimagining our pre-Troubles past in Blue Tango, in which he deals with the murder of Judge Curran's daughter, Patricia. In later books, he explores the Robert Nairac murder, the death of Princess Diana and the last hanging in Crumlin Road jail.

And the tradition of Northern Irish fiction writing continues. Bernie McGill's novel, set on Rathlin Island, when Marconi was experimenting with Morse Code. The Watch House looks at rural Irish life at the arrival of technology, the mix of magical and rational thinking. A wonderful book that puts you right there, in the peasant, obsessed world.

Even in the last year, we have had terrific novels by Bernie McGill, David Park, Sheila Llewellyn, Paul Burgess, Michael Hughes, Henry McDonald and Richard O'Rawe.

I don't know how this output compares to that of a comparably sized patch of England, or Germany, but it seems to me to be flourishing here as never before.

O'Rawe has given us one of the most daunting characters I have ever encountered in fiction - Ructions O'Hare, the master of the tiger kidnapping and surely one of the scariest men on the printed page.

Wendy Erskine's depiction of how a loyalist thug interacts with his community in Sweet Home, her first collection of short stories, will tell readers about the grim life in the meanest parts of Belfast with a sensitivity that few others approach.

Richard O'Rawe, like Gerard Brennan and Henry McDonald, are probably regarded as genre writers less likely to have a look-in at the big literary prizes, but that is a characterisation imposed from outside and does no justice to them.

Some of our writers, like David Park, can make a mystical epiphany real, daring to draw on the evangelical vision for modern fiction and others, like Thomas Paul Burgess, can step right outside to imagine hell in the aftermath of 9/11. Similarly, Jan Carson's engagements with weirdness and death-in-life are bizarre and grounded at the same time, sometimes as unnerving as HP Lovecraft.

It is just fantastic news that Anna Burns has won the Man Booker Prize for Milkman.

The best that can come of this now is that the world will look more closely at what we have here and wonder if it is something in the water that produces great local fiction, or just the horror we have been through.

Belfast Telegraph

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