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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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