Man Booker 2018: Milkman

26th September 2018

Milkman, Anna Burns,

Faber & Faber, London, 2018

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

In a brief Man Booker-linked interview, Anna Burns explains that she grew up ‘in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could’. A critic couldn’t have written a better description of the environment that she has created in her third novel, the menacing and complex ‘Milkman’.

Burns was brought up in Belfast (in the working-class Catholic district of Ardoyne) in the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles – a background that has led many reviewers to locate her novel in that place and timeframe. But it could be anytown, anytime. It is as much about the psychological effects of trauma and totalitarianism as it is about the lived experience, although that is vividly and powerfully created.

Our narrator is 18, and known only as ‘middle sister’. There are no proper names in this uneasy world; people are identified purely by relationships or roles: ‘ma’, ’wee sisters’, ‘third brother-in-law’, ‘maybe-boyfriend’, ‘nuclear boy’, ‘chef’, ‘Somebody McSomebody’ – and, of course, ‘milkman’. This linguistic construct reinforces the feeling of disassociation, of suspicion, of the unhealthy value placed on tribal affiliations. There is no place for individuality.

Middle sister is trying to fathom out her place in all this, while simultaneously trying not being noticed. Being noticed is dangerous; noticing is dangerous. To avoid the latter, she reads while she is walking along [this being a habit of my own, I liked her very much], but the result is that she attracts attention, both from the community as a whole and from milkman – who is, as it happens, not a milkman at all, but a paramilitary who has designs on her. Or does he? ‘Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything. Taken on their own, or to describe each incident separately, particularly while in the middle of it, might not seem, once relayed, to be all that much at all.’

‘Milkman’ is fantastically created, although it would be fair to say that it’s not an easy read; it demands your intimate and sustained attention, because every word counts. The language is rhythmic, repetitive, digressive, both precise and vague at the same time. There’s humour lurking just under the surface – in parts (particularly the parts in which ma rants and accuses), it is very funny indeed –but it is, overall, about constraint and control, about confusion and contempt. Both the writing and the novel are filled with a dark energy that appeals and repels in equal measure.

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