Milkman by Anna Burns

It was the menace that meant I could not read this book at night. And also the density of the prose, the close discussion of the implications of every action by every person. And so it took me a great while to read.

I had noted that it was the Man Booker Prize Winner for 2018. My reading group chose it for January. And so I began, determined to read to the end. I’m so pleased I did. What an experience!

Milkman by Anna Burns

This novel is partly an account of coming of age, or at least coming to her senses in a dangerous situation. It is narrated by a girl of 18 who lives in the 1970s in a city that seems to be Belfast, but is not named in the novel (any more than our narrator is). She appears to live in the Ardoyne area and was therefore born into a Catholic family. The streets around her home are dominated by renouncers with their own rules and kangaroo courts. The city is patrolled by armed forces from the state over the water. 

Our narrator attempts to live her life outside the complications of this place and its influences. But she comes to see that no action, including avoidance, is beyond the community’s interpretation and judgement. Her habit of walking along reading books from the 19thcentury or earlier has led her to beyond the pale.

But she has also attracted the attention of milkman, a major renouncer. She tries to avoid his attentions. But it is clear that he already knows everything about her, including her relationship with Maybe-Boyfriend, her evening classes, her family (including those who have brought shame on the community). He wants her and his attentions bring threats and the sense of being stalked.

She has also rejected the attentions of Somebody McSomebody who cannot believe that he has been rejected. And she has attracted the attention of tablet girl, a nihilist on a deadly mission.

All three represent mortal risks to the narrator, made worse by the community – including her mother – believing she is already involved with milkman. 

No one is unaffected by the situation, everybody has their own version of what is happening and what should happen. 

The way in which this works out is the stuff of the dense and tight plotting. 

The style

Two aspects of the writing are worth exploring. The absence of give names, and the use of relationships in their place, as well as the occasional riff on the significance of names in the area is notable from the opening sentence. 

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a rat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. (1)

By not naming the city Anna Burns wants us to look beyond Belfast, and indeed the travails of our narrator are those of any young woman growing up in a place where conformity, prejudice and patriarchy are the dominant forces. More or less everywhere then.

And by identifying people through their relationships with her (the wee sisters, third brother-in-law, longest friend from primary school and so on) the lines of connection are emphasised. Family and community are the dominant connections.

The other aspect is the dense discussion, explanation, exploration of everything that happens involving running, car parts, severed cats’ heads, feminist meetings, dogs, medical treatment and so on. Being clear about the possible meanings could be the difference between rough justice and being let alone. But it is also the way young questioning people make sense of their world. And our narrator could be any young woman trying to find her way in the world.

Characters

In such a tight community where everyone is known to everyone being able to differentiate the characters is important. Some are deliberately made to share a name (the milkman and the real milkman, for example). Some are exquisitely described, especially the more sympathetic men, such as the real milkman or third brother-in-law. But the most flagrant character is Ma. At first we are disappointed in her. When the narrator explains her concerns about milkman’s attentions, Ma does not believe her version and accuses her daughter of being immoral and unwise. But later Ma comes to see her own disappointments in a new way and even to find some happiness.

Her most endearing habit is her near malapropisms. 

‘Back then,’ she’d say, meaning the olden days, meaning her days, their days, ‘even then,’ she said, ‘I never understood your father. When all was said and done, daughter, what had he  got to be psychological about?’ (84)

I laughed out loud at that and then wept at the description of Da’s depression.

Ma is broadly representative of the women of the community, who both enforce and at times challenge the rule of the renouncers, intervening to prevent some punishments. They act decisively to punish a man who transgresses their rules about their toilets in the local drinking place.

Humour

So while I was reading slowly, because of the menace in the story, I was also appreciating the humour. Some is in the turns of phrases, necessary because of the use of repetition and lists. The best must be 

… charmingly packaged, gift-wrapped potatoes … (334)

The precocious wee sisters also provide much amusement, as does the inventiveness of the language and of plot details. Here’s a wonderful colourful moment near the end, when the wee sisters join the other girls from the area and beyond in dressing up and dancing as an international ballroom dancer in the streets:

This explained the colour – for there had been an explosion of colour – plus fabric, accessories, make-up, feathers, plumes, tiaras, beads, sparkles, tassels, lace, ribbons, ruffles, layered petticoats, lipsticks, eyeshadows, even fur – I had glimpsed fringed fur – high heels too, which belonged to the little girls’ big sisters and which didn’t fit which was why periodically the little girls fell over sustaining injuries. (315)

Recommended

The themes of this book are important: tribalism, patriarchy, living in fear and explored through some very careful plotting. 

All those present at the discussion at the January reading group agreed it was an excellent book. And we know what the panel of judges for the Man Booker Prize thought. Highly recommended.

Do you have an opinion? For another perspective you can find Heavenali’s recent response here

Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber in 2018. 348pp

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

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14 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

14 Responses to Milkman by Anna Burns

  1. Clodagh Hayes

    Excellent review. I loved this book. It’s a shame it got a reputation for being ‘difficult’. It is dense, as you say, but easy to read when you get the rhythm. And it’s also very funny. It deserved the prize – it is a real universal book.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this. I like some of my reading to be challenging, and this one caused a bottle neck (no pun intended) in my reading. But I persevered, persisted because it was such a strong voice, such an interesting style, and I was caught up in the dread. I agree, it is also very funny. And universal as you say.
      Please revisit this site again soon.
      Caroline

  2. Eileen Carnell

    Yes, Caroline, this is a great review. I read the book on my way to and from Valencia sitting at the airports and then on the planes. I heard that some people found it difficult to get into but that was not true in my case. I loved the beginning and the development of the various people and the description of the situations. I’m three quarters of the way through and will finish it. It is a very different way of telling a story and I would have been criticised in my writing group if I had presented such very long paragraphs. I liked the non-naming of people. I found it very refreshing and the Irish issues were dealt with skilfully, in my opinion.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Eileen. An excellent distraction from Airport waiting I suspect, especially given the qualities that you have noted. Yes long paragraphs have their place.
      Did we complain about the length of our paragraphs when we wrote together? Can’t remember.

      Refreshing and skilled – definitely
      Caroline XX

  3. Jane Field

    Like you, I initially found this a challenging read. That’s possibly because I am a fast (lazy?) reader and I found that I could not romp along but had to give the language my full attention. I did hit a wall partway through, but not being one to give up easily I persevered. I am so glad I did. It was such a pleasure to read some5hing so different.

    • Caroline

      Hi Jane, thanks for this comment. I agree that it was hard to romp through the rather dense prose. Partly that was what slowed me down. Other people (chrissy in our reading group, for example) found it very easy to read quickly. I was sorry you missed the discussion, and we didn’t hear your comments at the time but so pleased you enjoyed this through to the end.
      Caroline

  4. anneontheshelf

    I don’t have weeks to read this as it’s a library copy and my turn has come up! Like you I find it unsettling and menacing but a very worthwhile read. Thanks for the review.

  5. Excellent review, I also read this for my book group in January. I thought it was an extraordinary novel. The voice is so strong, and Burns portrays that community perfectly

    • Caroline

      So glad you enjoyed it too. All my book group thought it was very interesting and challenging and a great choice to start 2019.
      Caroline

  6. Jennifer

    I read this over a very intense couple of days while in bed with the a cold. I found it incredibly involving. The voice in my head while I was reading was Irish (I don’t know how this happened as I don’t do accents). I loved the rhythm and cadence of the language and the lively and spirited defiance it revealed. What a great character she was and what clever writing to reveal this in her telling of her story. It also reminded (revealed to? ) me how terrifying it must have been to have lived in a society where gang rule dominated.
    Sorry to respond so late to this. I can’t keep up with the pace of your output Caroline.

    • Caroline

      Hope the cold got better very quickly.
      You have succinctly indicated the things I really enjoyed about this book.

      I like the fact that although probably relating to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, this is about tribal rule anywhere. Today. Terrifying. You are right.

      Caroline xx

    • Cecilia

      OMG! I too read it with an Irish accent!

  7. Laura Barraclough

    Hi there, Im using a quote from this in my english coursework.
    is it possible for me to have the full name of the person who wrote this review?

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