book review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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MILKMAN by Anna Burns
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2018 (UK)

 

I loved Milkman, but it’s so painfully niche I can’t think of anyone I’d personally recommend it to. Set in an unnamed city that’s probably Belfast in the 1970s, Milkman follows an unnamed narrator who’s believed by her community to be having an affair with a man known only as ‘the milkman,’ who isn’t actually a milkman. Told in stream-of-consciousness prose and set against the backdrop of the Troubles, Milkman doesn’t offer much of a plot, but it does provide a perceptive and intelligent look at a community under duress and constant surveillance.

It also starts with these stellar opening lines:

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.”

But this book is hard work, I will readily admit that. Though I loved the narrator’s sharp observational commentary, even I found the narrative style painfully long-winded at times. Paragraphs go on for pages; chapters go on for hours; the kind of concentration it takes to really immerse yourself in this novel can be draining. This is not what anyone would describe as an easy read, and I think it’s the kind of book that’s going to fall under the category of ‘I appreciated it but I didn’t like it’ for a lot of people.

This line of thought actually made me reflect on what it means to ‘like’ a book, because I wouldn’t describe my reading experience as ‘fun,’ necessarily, but despite that, I found Milkman incredibly rewarding. Anna Burns deftly crafts a living, breathing community, and paints a portrait of the realities of living in a city torn apart by civil unrest. Rumors and false perceptions dog these characters, and our narrator in particular, who’s considered an oddity, a ‘beyond-the-pale,’ due to the fact that she often reads while walking. In order to fit in in a society like this, every time you leave the house you have to bury a part of yourself, and Milkman incisively and comprehensively examines the toll that takes. I don’t know if I’ve ever read another novel that so expertly evokes the kind of anxiety that comes from the inability to trust your neighbor or even your own family. Characters in this novel operate under a veil of formality that you as a reader want to peel back to reveal their genuine hopes and fears and aspirations, but of course all you’re able to do is mutely watch them navigate social situations while unable to truly express themselves. This book can be infuriating because of that, but it’s supposed to be. There’s also an undeniably feminist undercurrent to the whole thing, as the narrator laments the difficulties unique to women during this time, though it remains a subtle element throughout.

Though it’s ultimately more of a psychological story than a historical one, drawing obvious parallels to any number of totalitarian regimes across history, Milkman does feel firmly rooted in its Northern Irish setting. This is a recognizably Irish novel, from its stream-of-consciousness prose to its pitch-black humor, and there’s no question that that played a huge role in my ultimate enjoyment of it, so above all else I think I’d recommend this to anyone who loves Irish lit and Irish history, but who can tolerate a lack of plot and likes their novels a bit on the philosophical side.

Personally, I’ll be thrilled if this is shortlisted for the Booker, but I also doubt that likelihood as it’s not the kind of novel that’s destined to reach a wide audience – not that the Booker necessarily prioritizes accessibility, but I would just find it unlikely if all five judges are in complete agreement about this one’s merits enough to advance it. But who knows. This had already been on my radar before the longlist announcement, but I’m very happy that it pushed me to read it sooner than I otherwise would have.

EDIT on 10/15: I changed my mind. I think it’s going to win!

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap

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43 thoughts on “book review: Milkman by Anna Burns

    • I’m realizing now that I probably came off super pro-stream of consciousness but honestly it is SO hit or miss for me so I kind of have to take it on a case by case basis. The rambling in this one got to be a bit much sometimes but I did really click with the narrative voice, so I think that’s mostly what it came down to. It’s such a tricky book to recommend because I don’t even want to say ‘try the first few pages and see if you like it’ because there’s a world of difference between reading a few paragraphs of this kind of prose and 300 pages. So, who knows, but if you do eventually decide to pick it up I certainly hope you like it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I totally know what you mean. More than any other style, stream of consciousness really relies on connection with the narrator, since we spend so much time in their head, so it’s very much hit or miss.

        Also, whilst we’re discussing Man Booker reads, I just finished Everything Under and loved it! Interestingly, it’s also one that I can totally see won’t work for everyone, but it absolutely clicked for me, so I’m excited to see how you get on with it!

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      • Definitely – I find it particularly difficult to generalize about stream of consciousness, because with something like The Idiot I LOVED the narration style, but if I never have to read another Faulkner it will be too soon. (I’ve only read one Faulker, incidentally, but I was sufficiently traumatized by it.)

        Ooh I’m starting that one next, I cannot wait! Hannah and Amalia had such glowing things to say too, so I’m really hoping I’m also in that camp that loves it. Looking forward to reading your review!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I am so glad you liked this! Because I think this could have been an excruciating reading experience otherwise. It’s definitely a book I will stear clear off (unless it’s longlisted for the Women’s Prize next year, then I’ll reconsider).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll be interested to see if there’s any crossover between the Man Booker and the 2019 Women’s Prize since obviously there was none with this past Women’s Prize. But I imagine Everything Under, Normal People, and The Water Cure all have a good chance. I’m crossing my fingers for Milkman, even though I don’t think you’ll get on with it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts if it comes to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hope there is. It would mean that I have a bit of a headstart when it comes to reading the longlist.
        Milkman would either annoy me to no end or be a new favourite for me – I don’t think there is a middle ground with me and stream-of-consciousness.

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      • I couldn’t believe I only had a ONE book head start with the Booker. I really hope the Woman’s Prize is kinder to me. And I’m the exact same. Thinking about stream-of-consciousness books I’ve read, I either love them or hate them.

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      • I would have thought, given how much literary fiction you read, that you’d have more of a headstart. Well, we can always hope for the Women’s Prize (I am SO keeping my fingers crossed for The Pisces)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Right?! And I read TEN Women’s Prize longlisters only for there to be zero crossover.

        Ooh yes, justice for The Pisces. Though I almost fear its rating will plummet even lower with a wider audience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I, for one, always struggle with reviews for books I appreciated that I don’t think readers at large will necessarily enjoy, but I’m more interested in this book now than I was before, which I think speaks to how well you handle that balance. It’s been a while since I’ve read any stream of consciousness narrations that I’ve liked, but I’m hoping this one will agree with me because everything else sounds right up my alley: the psychological focus, the unsettled community, the private vs. public self… But I’m going to have to wait a little while to read it. I just got a copy of Warlight, and I’m expecting copies of Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, and The Mars Room later this week, so I’ll (finally) be reading a bunch of the nominee titles. I’ll have to add Milkman to my next round.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I certainly hope you enjoy it! I was trying very hard to write a review that wasn’t like, ‘everyone go out and read this immediately,’ because I think I would end up being resented for that by a lot of people, lol. But the positives really outweighed the negatives for me and I’m hoping it’ll be a similar situation for some other readers.

      Next up for me is Everything Under – I read 70 pages last night and I’m loving it so far!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad it was a good experience for you! I’ll go in with caution, but it definitely sounds promising. And I won’t hold your review accountable if I end up not liking it, lol.

        That’s great! Everything Under is one of the titles I’m most excited about. I’ll keep an eye out for your review!

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  3. This sounds like a very unique book. I liked how you showed what you liked about it but also why you think other people might not like it. It reminds me a little of Ali Smith, her writing does take a lot of work. And personally I think I prefer the classic narration style 🙂

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    • Thanks very much! It was a bit Ali Smith-esque, come to think of it. The tone was quite different from Smith’s style, but it was a similar experience of needing to put a lot of effort into reading, but finding the result rewarding.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] I couldn’t believe it – not only did I predict the winner which I think is a first-time occurrence for me, this is exactly the result I had wanted.  I do think that any of the other five would have been perfectly worthy winners – there isn’t a single one that would have made me angry had it won, even my least favorite Washington Black, which I do see the merit in even though I wasn’t crazy about it personally – but I wouldn’t have been excited by any result other than this one.  So, I had a 1 in 6 chance of my 2018 Man Booker journey concluding on a happy note, and I got it.  I’m so thrilled.  I thought Milkman was a quiet powerhouse of a novel, which comprehensively examines the reality of living as a young woman in a community divided by civil unrest, under the constant and pervasive threat of violence.  It’s funny and unsettling and intelligent, with one of the most unique voices I’ve read in anything recently, and I absolutely loved it.  Full review here. […]

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  5. I thought much the same as you, in that it wasn’t an easy read and I don’t know who I’d recommend it to, and yet, when I read the essay Gender in Conflict about the book, I wanted to read it straight away, so I guess I just had to be as honest as possible and let those who read my reviews decide for themselves. Certainly any avid reader with an interest or connection to Northern Ireland would want to read it and the best reviews I have read have come from that ‘knowing it on the inside’ perspective.

    Brilliant review, thank you!

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    • It’s definitely an interesting one – when I finished reading it I thought ‘my review can’t be too positive or all my followers will want to read this and then they’ll hate it and I’ll feel guilty,’ but oddly enough most of the reviews that I’ve been seeing of this book have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve obviously seen some negative reactions as well, but not nearly as many as I thought I would. I stand by my comment that I still don’t know who the heck I’d recommend this to, but the people who are reading it are really surprising me! I know what you mean, I’ve read some really phenomenal reviews by Northern Irish reviewers, and their perspectives have been so fascinating to see. I’m American so aside from my Irish heritage (if that counts), the only ‘insider’ perspective I have is the fact that I read a lot of Irish lit. I really thought this might be one of those books that only appeals to those who like Irish lit but I think it has a wider appeal than I first suspected! Anyway, thank you, very glad you loved this as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] 1. Milkman by Anna Burns.  I mean… it has to be my book of the year, doesn’t it.  I gave it 4 stars and then I changed it to 5 stars; I was sure it was too niche to make the Booker shortlist and then I gradually became convinced that it was going to win.  I would say that this book crept up on me, but that implies past tense and I’m not positive that this book is done with me.  I still think about it constantly, and I think it is one of the most masterful things I have ever read.  This is a stylistic and thematic feat that I truly believe is one of the most rewarding books I have ever read.  Full review here. […]

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