Orange Women

Anyone who takes my recommendations or denunciations as worthy and informed will just have to think twice. Last year I reviewed a novel for a national daily using a cut-throat razor and a blowtorch to make the point that I did not like the book. It turns out I am the poorest judge in the world because that book, ‘No Bones’ by Anna Burns, has been long-listed for the Orange Prize For Fiction (sponsored by Orange, the British mobile communications company).

The competition is open to women writers only and is judged by a panel of five women. The winner of the Prize is awarded £30,000 (the Booker Prize, which was £20,000, was increased this week to £50,000, prompting me to immediately start a new novel). The prize arose in protest against the Booker Prize for 1991 when no women were short listed, part of a trend, some have alleged, of women being overlooked for the biggest literary prizes, despite the number of women writers.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote: ‘There is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing.’ By extension that should mean that there is no male and female in writing, just good and bad writing. If that is the case, why do women writers not do as well as their male counterparts? Is it a legacy of male domination and discrimination against women? Are the majority of commissioning editors and reviewers male and do they implicitly or subconsciously discriminate against talented women?

Certainly, in the area of sport, due to the differences in physical make-up, we have segregation in terms of, for example, tennis, swimming, running, etcetera. And there are certain manual occupations where men are more likely to excel. But in terms of intellect surely women have nothing to prove? Author Anita Brookner said of the Orange Prize that ‘the whole idea of an award just for women fills me with horror.’

All I know is that I didn’t like ‘No Bones’, which is set in Ardoyne between 1969 and 1994 and is a misanthropic portrayal of the nationalist people of that area, similar to the expressions of community-loathing in Robert McLiam Wilson’s ‘Ripley Bogle’.

The novel is about the life of Amelia Lovett (aged seven when the story begins), her family and community, all of whom without exception are unhinged, are on drink or drugs or the drug of violence.

Amelia’s mother Mariah perpetually feuds with and tears lumps out of her sister Sadie Lavery. When Amelia is seven her brother Mick tries to throw her out the window. Years later, Mick is married to Mena. Both of them have sex in front of the family watching television, and then try to rape Amelia while their daughter Orla is hanging her dolls by the neck from the banister. Amelia’s father, a violent man, is shot dead. Her sister, Lizzie, overdoses and kills herself. Mick is shot dead as a suspected informer. Her long-lost cousin, a British soldier, beats an old man to death while on patrol – a drunk, old man, need I add. Later, the soldier is stabbed to death by Mick’s friend, Jat McDaide, who owns his own freelance murder squad.

Then there are Amelia’s school chums and neighbours. Amelia’s schoolteacher is an alcoholic who wears no knickers, ever since she was jilted – I jest not. Bronagh, aged 13, shoots Grainne in front of the class for stealing her boyfriend. Aloysius Fallon, deputy treasurer of the Sinn Fein H-Block Sub-Committee who misappropriates over £6,000 for – surprise, surprise – drinking and gambling, hangs himself. Fifteen kids play Russian roulette with a revolver until one of them shoots himself in the head. Kids line up to be kneecapped by cerebrally-challenged IRA personnel.

Bronagh McCabe, an IRA woman, has kids called Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy, Kevin Barry, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, and has to have “dominating and very fast sex” before she can kill. Amelia falls victim to her abuse as well.

Anna Burns really pushes the body count. Amelia’s friend Vincent Lyttle, a schizoid, talks to himself and other imagined characters ever since his father was tortured to death. Mary Dolan pushes a pram around Ardoyne with the remains of her aborted baby, dressed up resembling a bomb. Mary gets pregnant again and Vincent asks her to take out the baby from her womb so that he can have a close look at it – which she does, on the end of her thumb, and it’s the button for Amelia’s brother Mick. She then puts the baby back inside her with the help of a Nambarrie tea-caddy.

Certainly, in fiction there is an legitimate place for surrealism and hallucinations, nightmares and dreams, but in this novel it just doesn’t work and comes across as desperate plotting, unless perhaps Flamingo’s editors were all out on strike and no one advised Ms Burns.

And that is a pity. Because it is obvious from several passages that Ms Burns, who was born in Belfast in 1962 and moved to London in 1987, can create mood and atmosphere and pathos. She describes the fate of two young men with whom Amelia comes into contact on the same night: two men who have to cross Belfast to get back to a nationalist haven. One of them makes it home safely, but the other is caught by a loyalist murder gang. And her descriptions of Amelia’s anorexia are effective and very moving.

British reviewers praised it to the high heavens, which speaks volumes, I think, about their receptivity to racial stereotyping, especially if it is served up by that creature Joyce inflicted on us, ‘the writer in exile’.

Anyway, today, April 29th, the Orange Women Judges, will be announcing the short list, and, even though she will never speak to me, I wish Ms Burns the best of luck!