Booker Longlist Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

This is a book I knew nothing about until it was longlisted for the Booker prize, but once I read it I put it at the top of my list. Burns has been nominated for other awards, and this novel was reviewed in the Guardian, but I didn’t remember that until I went looking for reviews and interviews.

The narrator of the book is an unnamed 18-year-old young woman living in an unnamed city in the 1970s, trying to navigate her life amidst social conflict and violence. The city is basically Belfast, the Narrator is part of the Catholic community, and the time period is the Troubles. Narrator’s primary interest is getting through life and not getting caught up in the maelstrom around her, for reasons she lays out early on:

Knowledge didn’t guarantee power, safety, or relief and often for some it meant the opposite of power, safety and relief — leaving no outlet for dispersal either, of all the heightened stimuli that had been built by being up on in the first place. Purposely not wanting to know, therefore, was exactly what my reading-while-walking was about.

And she is largely successful until the Milkman, who is very much part of the conflict, decides he wants to get to know her better (and perhaps more). Narrator fends him off as best she can, but the nature of his position and the way everyone must be classified, categorized, and assigned a position in an us-or-them world makes it impossible. From being a slightly eccentric but largely unnoticed person, she becomes part of the beyond-the-pale group, one which is marked and viewed with suspicion. And suspicion is easily transformed into danger in this world.

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