Bina is a busy woman. She is a practical woman. An older woman. Bina is “a modern woman with modern thoughts on modern things,” and she is tired of not being heard. That’s “Bye‑na,” not “Bee‑na,” she’ll have you know. “Beena” is some other woman off living some happy life, and “Bye‑na” has little time for such simple, rosy outcomes. In fact, there’s very little that’s straightforward in Bina, the third novel from the Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield. So, reader, you have been warned.
For this is a cyclical collection of warnings, of insular musings, of do nots and watch out fors. It is a contemporary story of an ordinary-extraordinary older Irish woman who lives in a village outside Castlebar (not in Castlebar, which Bina hates: “They think they are Milan in Castlebar”). But setting is hardly important here. Bina is a woman who has simply had enough.
The novel is a monologue-memoir of sorts, a stream of consciousness merry-go-round, in which the protagonist tells the story of the two men who have upended and possibly (probably) ruined her life. One of them is Eddie, her “sorta son,” a man she found lying in the ditch beside her house. (“Drive straight past them,” she warns, if you ever come across a person lying in a ditch.) The other, referred to only as the Tall Man, comes to her door and into her life, bringing with him “a whole pile of trouble.” Both men are dangerous — one in his stupidity, the other in his cunning — and Bina is caught between the brutishness of one and the violence of the other.
Male violence, the status of the female voice, the nature of moral courage, the right to decide, accountability and blame, the problems of truth and sensationalist culture — these are all timely themes that know no national boundaries. Schofield is exacting and fearless in how she weighs them, and refreshingly free of self-righteousness. “Sacrifice is a stupid thing that women do. Don’t do it. The men don’t notice,” Bina says, matter-of-factly. “If I do nothing else in these warnings, I will train you to say no.” This book had me — a young woman who has also had enough — boiling with anger one moment and laughing the next. Again, nothing is ever straightforward.
This is what Schofield seems to enjoy most: turning things over and onto their head. She excels at interlacing seemingly contrary conditions — the sinister and the compassionate, for example, or love and violence, the intimate and the darkly comic. A collar-gripping urgency runs beneath the surface, with Bina frequently addressing the reader in the second person. Interrogate the nature of control and justice, she seems to invite us. Question who is expected to speak and who is expected to listen. Who is active and who is passive. Of course, the scales are not balanced. We all know it. Bina knows it.
Schofield, who moved to Vancouver in 1999 and earned a Giller Prize nod in 2015, has not written a plot-driven novel. She has given us instead a Bina-driven novel, one that progresses in stops and starts, in a jumbled overlapping of past and present. We might characterize it as succinct ramblings. But they’re ramblings worth hearing:
Does it matter whether it’s a warning or a remarking at this stage?
Would warnings prevent remarking?
I have no idea.
That’s up to ye.
While Bina throws out questions in abundance, she offers few, if any, answers. And in a way, she encourages us to do the same. Why should it be up to the woman to explain, or to defend her right to say her piece and get on with her life? Bina is not a voice for all women, nor should she be held up as one, but she is a woman with a voice, one who should not be dismissed or discounted out of hand. This is what Bina does: it projects outwardly and remains notably self-aware. Schofield is skilled at causing her reader to pause, raise an eyebrow, think a minute, and then read hurriedly on.
Bina is in a hurry to tell her tale, and we are in a hurry to follow along. It is a quick and vibrant novel — playful and mischievous. The language is compact and physical, frequently more like poetry than prose, to which the Irish cadence lends itself beautifully:
Carry on with burdensome people only if you enjoy having something to moan about.
Otherwise hammer your expectation towards the tin can of inevitable failure.
Tin is tin.
Let din in and he’ll only give you more tin.
The writing often descends into frantic bursts of stacked lines and staccato sentences as Bina, we are led to understand, scribbles her story on the backs of receipts and scraps of paper, somewhat clandestinely; it’s as if we are reading an unfinished closet drama. Very occasionally, and for no apparent reason, paragraphs end in a couplet. Is it a part of our modern condition to be so delightfully tempted by such small arrangements of words, like pieces of literary sushi? The style won’t be for everyone, much in the way not everyone enjoys raw fish. But then you can’t please ’em all, Bina might shrug.
At one point, Bina claims she is getting older and that her memory is going, but this smacks of the excuses women so often give. There is more at stake here than the usual tension derived from an unreliable narrator. Rather, the circular, winding form becomes a celebration of being heard, of pushing a point or a warning — in whatever raw shape that takes. Say it loud and say it proud. Because why not?
However, spending time in the company of a talkative narrator can become a little wearing, as it can be with any chatty person. Few detailed descriptions of place or situation break up Bina’s frantic discourse, but we get a sense of setting through the rhythm, sound, and form of her voice. Then there’s the problem of Eddie, who is so one-note bad. We’re left wanting to understand why he is just so vile (not to excuse him, but to explain him). Some people are just bad, Bina might say, and perhaps she’s right. But why? Especially in this turbulent, isolationist, us-and-them political climate, we crave more nuance from our fictional bad guys, just as we do from the political ones.
No one reading Bina will question Schofield’s rich creativity. It is a story that is much bigger than Bina herself, to put it crudely. Even without nuanced Eddies, the novel is intriguing, perplexing. It is complicated and entirely human. Schofield has a wonderful way of making parts seem frivolous, and then hitting us where it hurts. The real warning should be to not judge too quickly. Except when things can be judged only one way — and then judge them quick and judge them hard. As Bina herself says, “I’m roundabouting again, amn’t I.”