“Milkman,” Anna Burns’ extraordinary third novel, won the Man Booker Prize in 2018, clearing the flight path for this first American publication of her second novel, “Little Constructions,” which was published in the United Kingdom in 2007. If you think that’s a bit twisty, just wait till you get caught up in the novel’s plot. It begins with a bang, or the prospect of a bang, when Jetty Doe bursts into a gun shop, grabbing a Kalashnikov and whatever bullets she can get her hands on. “Did you see that, Tom?” the gun shop owner, also named Tom, says. “She didn’t want to know if it was an AK47 or an AK74. She called it a gun.”
After all, “Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun” — and that, according to our narrator, is the one difference between men and women. This narrator, one of the book’s more delightful peculiarities, is a (mostly) disembodied know-it-all voice that can sound like a mash-up of Beckett, Dr. Seuss and the Kinsey Report. Though claiming a certain aloofness as a “bystander,” the voice has plenty to say about mental ailments, marital relations, abuse, shock, recovery and the state of things in general. Also, mercifully, it tells us where we are in time as we rocket from Jetty Doe “heading east in a temper in a taxi” back to the knifing that haunts Gun Shop Tom, ahead to the crimes, big and small, that Jetty interrupts, back to the childhood damage done to another Doe, Jotty, and forward 20 years to the fallout, including, not incidentally, the gun shop’s transformation into “Tiptoe Floorboard’s only feminine bra shop.”
Ah, yes, Tiptoe Floorboard: that’s the unlikely name of this presumably Northern Ireland town convulsed by violence largely done within and in the name of the family Doe. Even the Doe family is difficult to keep track of here. But, again, let the narrator help: “Jetty Doe was really a Doe, but often others only socially connected with the Doe family also went under that umbrella.” Thus, next into the gun shop, was “Jennifer Doe, who wasn’t really a Doe, but best friend of Janet Doe, one of the two people Jetty in the taxi was looking for at the moment.”
The other is “John Doe, husband of Janet, father to Julie, and brother to both Janine and Jotty. He was also leader of the town’s Community Centre Action Team.”
That’s the criminal gang that terrorizes Tiptoe - whose criminal activity seems to be a natural outgrowth of the violence at the core of the Doe family, which is rife with child abuse, incest, rape, casual cruelty and the sort of domestic brutality that prompts the Doe women to conjure imaginary loving husbands to get through their dreary days.
That all sounds so awful, and it is - but in the narrator’s knowing, alternately wry and waggish commentary, there is more than denial, repression and toughing-it-out, though plenty of that, too. There is a glimmer of hope, a suspicion of redemption, and enough playful wit to suggest that what’s building in “Little Constructions” may well be a comic novel after all.