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: