Milkman, by Anna Burns
Books Paper Scissors Book Review : Milkman, by Anna Burns
“ Burns … dares to say anything… her writing is energetic, convoluted
and courageous” (Lucy Ellman, in the Guardian 2007, about Little Constructions)
This book, as would be expected, isn’t straightforward to critique. No particular narrative thread, not a lot ‘happens’ and the characters are sketchy at best …… so our discussion of it reflected that quite well. Lots of ‘episodes’ that spring to mind, jumping from shock at some of the characters and behaviour, to humourous moments, poignant moments, and thoughts that perhaps stay with you longer than from many books.
On balance it felt like the majority of readers ended up liking the book well; however there was significant resistance at first which brought our overall ratings down. Call it ‘Booker-itis’ perhaps, there is a self-conscious complexity about the writing which can frustrate and irritate many a serious reader.
Let’s assume those of us present were the ones who perservered! Once you get into the heart of the book, you are rewarded with moments of brilliance, of clever word play, the essence of ‘hypervigilance’, and a range of eccentric yet realistic characters all filed neatly under their relationship to the narrator, from the collective of wee sisters to longest friend and maybe boyfriend. The narrator herself is a strange mix, we know virtually nothing about her physically, or what others make of her, we have a detailed look at her everyday life, and she holds a steady camera up to the rest of society around her and sees more than others realise, that, in fact, being the basis of most of the novel?
For those who lived in Belfast, or wider Northern Ireland, throughout the 80’s and 90’s, there is of course a particularity in the setting, the undercurrent of violence and the memories of the Troubles. Anna Burns talks frequently when interviewed about the potential universality of the setting, and it seems that it does translate, if your own background is not the same as hers, into a general commentary on dangerous neighbourhoods, unreliable men and community spirit. Some would argue it’s not that different nowadays in certain pockets of the city.
Many readers spoke of the sense of trauma apparent in so many of the characters, about how they are expected to live a ‘different normal’ and not dwell on the violence, tragedy and threat all around them. Nevertheless, for all of its negative and threatening undercurrent, there is a return to optimism and ‘normality’ at the end of the novel, when she resumes her running and the Milkman has been ‘dealt with’, but the setting is still the same…..
The audiobook ( read by Brid Brennan) has been widely lauded for her ability to put rhythm and personality into the words, so if you have 14 hours and 11 minutes to do something useful whilst listening, I would highly recommend a second reading!