Even the dedication of Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield's witty and abrasive "Bina: A Novel in Warnings" is relatably caustic: "For every woman who has had enough." A warning serves as an alarm, a signal, an admonition, a summons, and as its subtitle promises — or threatens — Schofield's novel is all of these.
Told in the angry voice of an aggrieved and agitated Irish septuagenarian, the book cautions upfront what the reader's getting into: "That's Bye-na, not Beena. I don't know who Beena is but I expect she's having a happy life. I don't know who you are, or the state of your life. But if you've come all this way here to listen to me, your life will undoubtedly get worse."
From there, Bina launches into her scathing and offbeat examination of the demands of empathy faced by women of all ages, and the negative outcomes — both petty and sweeping — that women endure because of said demands.
Bina's woes derive almost entirely from men, including her "sorta son" Eddie, "the kind of son you are landed with because no beggar wants to be bothered with him and because he's used up all his goodwill and will soon expire on yours."
There's also the Tall Man, or "Dr Death, as the papers have dubbed him." Her complicated loyalty to her dear female friend Phil — short for Philomena — provides a fraught counterpoint to these men's manipulations.
Bina has landed in serious legal trouble due to her involvement in a pro-euthanasia activist organization she calls only The Group. She's jotting her testimony in secret on "all over the back of these bills and papers." The plot unspools obliquely, with important details revealed in footnotes full of philosophizing, like: "I saw this when I was arrested. I saw how simple the thinking on right and wrong is and how there's no road found in between."
Experimental and fragmentary, the novel includes profuse white space. Many pages are poetically spare with paragraphs more closely resembling stanzas, as when Bina opines, "Life is nothing but ordeals. / Have you noticed? / There are ordeal creators. / That's a fact." Sometimes, she even rhymes, as when she reproves: "See / Men stay on the mat / Don't let them in / It means din." This formal audacity results in a propulsive energy, a quick and quirky reading experience that feels pleasantly unpleasant, equal parts entertaining and upsetting.
Schofield's debut, "Malarky" (2012), won the Amazon First Novel Award, and her follow-up, "Martin John," was shortlisted for Canada's Giller Prize. Bina appeared as a minor character in the former, and Phil was the narrator, but this book can stand alone.
In the vein of Rachel Cusk or Clarice Lispector from whom she draws one of her epigraphs, Schofield uses her book's inventive structure to deliver a story that's biting, bitter and rife with dark humor. Relentless in her tone of alarm, like a warning bell or a warning shot, Bina's words will leave your head ringing.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk," and, most recently, "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey."
Bina: A Novel in Warnings
By: Anakana Schofield.
Publisher: New York Review Books, 336 pages, $17.95