Anna Burns’ “Little Constructions” is set in the fictional, fancifully named town of Tiptoe Under Greystone Cliff. There you’ll find the Does, the big family behind the Community Centre Action Team. An outsider might take them for civic-minded Samaritans.
But as locals tell it, this isn’t the healthiest of households. Says one, “You couldn’t — how could you? — know the minds you’re dealing with in this dreadful abyss of brokenness, this dead valley of hopelessness, this nethermost pit of faithlessness.”
In 2018, Burns won the Man Booker Prize for “Milkman,” a mordant novel about her native Northern Ireland. The honor spurred interest in her earlier work. Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press has responded with the first American edition of “Little Constructions,” published in Britain in 2007.
“Little Constructions” resembles Burns’ award-winner in several ways. It’s about violence and its consequences. It’s told in vibrant, conversational prose. And it’s very funny.
Burns’ verve is evident from the start. Her brisk opening scene, which takes place in a gun store, introduces us to two important characters: “Jetty Doe, the one who had knifed her mammy once, and … her less-annoyed cousin called Jotty, who hadn’t.” They’re notorious, mainly because of their last name.
John Doe — Jotty’s brother and Jetty’s brother-in-law/lover — is a fierce crime boss. The Community Centre is a front for his thievery and revenge killings. Because he’s horrible to everyone he meets, many want him dead. In turn, the paranoid thug has stocked his hideout with pilfered suits of armor and begun consulting a Ouija board to catch backstabbers.
Where John and Jetty are wild, Jotty, one of the few law-abiding Does, is relatable. The victim of a terrible crime, she’s a brave, taciturn heroine who’s used to contending with cruelty. In one improbably hilarious scene, Jotty fends off her nasty sisters, who want it known that if she commits suicide, they’d rather not “do the sorting.”
Though the story features numerous “murders and arrests and ambulance transportings,” it’s essentially a dark comic portrait of several closely observed characters. Some adapt, grow, find contentment. Others molder.
Throughout the novel, Burns uses humor to dissect an insular, callous community. In a town where even the sweet shops are gloomy — fancy a visit to “the morgue confectionery”? — relatively minor crimes don’t arouse much sympathy. When a resident recounts being attacked, his friend quickly loses patience: “I’m sorry you got stabbed, okay? We were all sorry. When you were in the hospital we were in the bar being sorry.”
As for Jotty’s pals, they keep giving her self-help books with ridiculous 60-word titles. It’s a wry subplot about empty friendships — and a dig at the publishing industry’s more opportunistic precincts. Happily, there are still publishers who seek out bracing, acerbic books like this one.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Anna Burns.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 296 pages, $16.