Booker Longlist Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

by Sunita

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.

Her story, which is told retrospectively and with additional time jumps and flashbacks within that restrospection, comes to encompass the personal, the political, the historical, and even the geographical. From a single narrator’s feelings, thoughts, and observations of the world around her and her efforts to cope with an endlessly traumatic environment, the reader gains insight into what is means to live with endless conflict and strife, what it means to be a woman in this world where every choice and action has a meaning:

The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops.’ Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops. There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.

In the midst of all the rumination and monologues, there are several storylines, the main one being Narrator’s encounters with the Milkman and the effects of rumors about their relationship on her life. But we also learn about her relationship with maybe-boyfriend, with her mother, her sisters, and her brothers-in-law. And the last quarter of the book is surprisingly heartwarming. Things don’t work out for everyone, but some people do find comfort.

This has been a polarizing book among Booker longlist readers. If it works for you then you really love it, but there are people who had to force themselves to finish and hated it all the way through. The style is demanding. There are no quotations for dialogue, the time and topics jump around (although I saw a definite logic), and plot points can take quite a while to unfold, with digressions along the way. The structure of the sentences and the syntax reflects the local way of speaking. There are no names, for people, places, or even animals. There is violence.

But if you do fall into this novel, it’s an amazing journey. The depiction of the time period, of the position of women, of what it means to live in a place where everything is structured by a “which side are you on” worldview, are all depicted brilliantly. And it’s frequently funny, even when there doesn’t seem to be anything to laugh about. This is really a singular accomplishment.

5 Stars at Goodreads.

I could write another 500 words and still not do this work justice. Try the sample. If it works for you, keep reading. If it doesn’t, then the rest of the book probably won’t either.