Milkman by Anna Burns

I mean, it’s not the worst Man Booker winner I can think of.

If for nothing else, I do appreciate Milkman for being the first Northern Irish fiction I’ve read that I can remember: I’ve read plenty of stuff from Ireland but never from “over-the-border” so this was very illuminating. As someone born on the tail end of the 1970s, on the other side of the world, this was also a much appreciated look into a setting very alien to me. The terror and grief that wracked so many of these places that I would visit years later in times of peace now feel like an exotic relic, when they should really serve as a cautionary tale for anyone with an impulse to political violence.

Anna Burns’ Milkman deals with life in a society doubly repressed, first by the defenders-of-state who violate the rights of their citizens under the pretext of hunting for dissidents and terrorists, and then by the renouncers-of-state whose paranoia further stifles the existence of the average person. Our unnamed narrator is an 18 year-old woman whose quiet resistance to not only her oppressors but also to the narrow lane in which society wants to place her comes mainly in the form of reading pre-20th-century fiction while walking all over town. She also has a maybe-boyfriend whom she doesn’t want to introduce to her overbearing mother, for various reasons Ms Burns describes much more artfully than I could in this review.

Maybe-girlfriend’s sense of equilibrium is shattered when the titular Milkman heaves into view. He approaches her one day as she’s walking, offering her a lift, and next thing she knows, she’s being gossiped about as the doxy to a highly-placed renouncer, who also happens to be middle-aged and married. Milkman’s blandishments seem so mild as he continues to “accidentally” run into her, but the underlying threat of violence is ever present as Maybe-girlfriend struggles to escape his attentions.

This account of one woman being stalked by a violent thug serves as the focus for a larger story about a society in turmoil, and I greatly admired the grace with which Ms Burns builds her message. For the most part I enjoyed being in Maybe-Girlfriend’s head for this stream-of-consciousness narrative, except for a large chunk of the middle, where she goes on at length about her feelings about her feelings. I really hate when authors do this: please trust in your writing and your readers that we can tell what your characters are feeling about their feelings without you explicitly telling us.

Otherwise, it was a pretty good story, if not the easiest read. Maybe-girlfriend’s deepening discomfort with the Milkman situation was compelling and relatable, as was the depiction of life in an insular conservative community. Her relationship with her mother, especially, reminded me very much of my own. I was occasionally frustrated by the narrator’s passivity and unwillingness to communicate, but being eighteen and subject to malicious gossip is more than enough excuse for shutting down. Also, I found wee sisters to be entirely charming creatures. Overall, a worthy read but hardly a page turner. The Booker people could have chosen worse.

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