Milkman – Anna Burns

May was for me a month when I read more about the Troubles. Ever since moving to the UK I always wanted to find out more about that dark time, but as it usually is life was getting in the way. In the end, my project from last year, 12 bookshops for 12 months, helped me to get round to it. I bought Reporting the Troubles in Housmans in October and Milkman in Libreria in December. Both books then lingered on my shelves for a few months, until I went to New York in April and saw my boss reading the Milkman. I asked her what she thought and she was raving about it, but also saying it takes her a lot of time to read it. I finally gave it a go in May. Then in quick succession, I read Reporting the Troubles (still awaiting a review) and re-read Eureka Street.

And it did take me a lot of time to finish, it is a long book, it is packed with meanings and the print is quite small, which I dislike more and more, possibly it’s something to do with age. That is not to say I did not enjoy the book immensely.

Our unnamed narrator is a young girl living in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland torn by the Troubles. When you think of it everyone in the book is unnamed, as if it is a condition of life. People are described by their relations, like the maybe-boyfriend or a third-brother-in-law, or by their nickname or a characteristic, like the pill girl. For a book where really not much happens it really keeps your attention, at times I found it difficult to stop reading or when I di stop hearing the narrator’s voice in my head.

The gist of the plot is that the narrator, eighteen years old, seems to have caught the eye of one of the renouncers. That in itself would not be so much of a problem, as she was doing her best to minimize all contact, the problem was that she has been seen. Being seen just like being unnamed seems to be a condition of life in this community, everyone is constantly seen, and that also means judged, assessed, compared to the widely accepted norm and scrutinized for any deviation from it. Even though she hasn’t spoken a word to the Milkman, the gossip mill has started. what is more all of her family decided, to intervene and convince her she should not associate herself with him. From that point, one of the streams of narrative develops focusing on the suffocating and overpowering small community. One that is close-knit, giving safety, but also one that does not tolerate any difference of behavior, as it puts the entire community at risk. A quietly besieged one. A place that we may find safe when we’re children, because we know everyone on the street and one that becomes oppressive and creepy the older one gets, especially if one decides to commit the heinous crime of ‘reading while walking’, which firmly puts you in the ‘beyond the pale’ category of outcasts.

There is a beautiful scene during the French class, which clearly inspired the cover when a teacher asks her student what color is the sky and they all firmly answer ‘blue’, though this is rarely the case during sunset. The narrator drives from this incident an in-depth analysis of the group’s behavior and how it is self-preservation and paranoia combined with apathy. From that perspective, the book is an amazing and chilling dissection of society in the time of war.

On another level, it could be a coming of age story, but our narrator is pretty well-formed individual already at the beginning. She knows who she is, what she likes and why she likes it. What changes during the book is her realization that society has a deep impact on her, that even if she chooses to ignore something it does not vanish and continues to affect her and her relationships. It is also a feminist book, as we are told the stories of the ‘issue women’ of the neighborhood, and the stories of countless ‘traditional women’, who had to build their stance and discover their identity. In this very traditional community, the roles as prescribed.

The writing is beautiful, often very witty and to the point only to move to a very languorous one when the narrator goes on a tangent or remembers a story from years ago. It is an expertly constructed book, one that makes you laugh at how silly things are only to make you realize how chilling is the thing you just laughed about. The sense of absurd mixed with the creepiness and suffocation. The state of constant danger and surveillance (internal and external) that drives everyone slightly mad. So yes it is a book about the Troubles, but it is also a more universal book about people in danger, communities closing in against it and casting anyone ‘beyond the pale’ out.

Quotes from Milkman

There is so much more in this book that I have not touched upon that I’ll link here a few other reviews to give you a better view.

Feminist Library

The Guardian

The New York Times

The Irish Times

6 thoughts on “Milkman – Anna Burns

  1. Pingback: Reporting the Troubles: Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict – Deric Henderson, Ivan Little –

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