Milkman by Anna Burns
Compellingly anxious and paranoid, Anna Burns’ Milkman (winner of the 2018 Booker Prize) is a timely, rambling novel set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Burns’ narrator is a thoughtful eighteen-year-old woman with a racing mind and a penchant for keeping to herself, but to some comes across as a “pale, adamantine, unyielding girl who walks around with the entrenched, boxed-in thinking.” She’d be happy keeping her head down, but is unnerved by the sudden presence of a strange man lurking in her life. He seems to be following her and watching her, and while this sort of surveillance wasn’t unheard of by local military figures at the time, she was nobody worth surveilling. Known by her small community as “the milkman”, the man stalks the narrator into a nightmare of gossip and lies, undeterred by her political apathy and romantic disinterest.
Meanwhile, her “maybe-boyfriend” is in a different sort of trouble. A passionate mechanic, he happens upon the parts to a wrecked Blower Bentley, one of which features the insignia of the UK flag. Similar to how the community in Milkman is prone to gossip and drags the narrator through a circus of nosy suppositions, they are also is a xenophobic, violent bunch with no patience for any loyalties “over there.”
The milkman creeps closer into the narrator’s life and finally shows his hand: she would belong to him, and, if she weren’t careful, her boyfriend might find himself killed by a car bomb.
Although set in the 1970s, Milkman is remarkably contemporary. Our world is growing even more border-conscious than ever before, and those not involved, like Milkman’s narrator, find themselves shutting out conflict and distracting themselves from society’s dangerous downturns. “Shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘too joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything,” the narrator laments. The novel addresses current fears of privacy, interconnectivity and loneliness and asks how to break past these abstract obstacles. “What if we accept these points of light, their translucence, their brightness,” Milkman posits.
“…what if we let ourselves enjoy this, stop fearing it, get used to it; what if we come to believe in it, to expect it, to be impressed upon by it; what if we take hope and forgo our ancient heritage and instead, and infused, begin to entrain with it, with ourselves then to radiate it; what if we do that, get educated up to that, and then, just like that, the light goes off or is snatched away?”
The terrible struggle of the #MeToo movement glints throughout Milkman’s mirror as well, considering how the narrator cannot even read a book while walking home without getting accosted by a man. Milkman is a book for our era, and will hopefully guide readers towards a quiet awakening through its offstage rendering of gendered and geographical politics.
Unfortunately, readers will have to burrow deep into Milkman’s challenging prose to find this noble purpose. The novel is complicated to the brink of impenetrability: while not quite told in a stream of consciousness narration, Milkman unfolds by way of episodic, inner monologue rambles, jumps around in time, and repetitively circles around various ideas and turns of phrase. Throughout the novel, all characters’ names are ignored: the narrator is “Middle Sister”, her partner “maybe-boyfriend”, her siblings “third brother,” “wee sisters,” and so on. While this naming system has a purpose (there’s an aside about Northern Ireland not approving of names from “over there,” which suddenly makes the novel feel like a legal document rife of redactions), it’s quite difficult to read. These decisions toe the line between effectively fascinating and simply too much, and many readers will find Milkman more trouble than it’s worth.
Milkman is an important, difficult book that will sadly be overlooked (or simply dropped) by casual readers. And despite winning the Booker Prize, it is in no way the year’s best. Those readers who make it through Milkman may feel nonplussed by both its grandeur and inaccessibility: it is a message worth spreading, but not a book easily shared.