Milkman by Anna Burns

I need a special rating for books that I’m glad I read but didn’t particularly enjoy. Milkman by Anna Burns is such a book.

There’s much to admire in Milkman. Burns’s unwavering and meticulous stream-of-consciousness account of the Troubles is told through the eyes of our unnamed narrator, an eighteen-year-old girl who comes from a large family impacted by political violence. Although the narrator is trying to distance herself from the turmoil that surrounds her, she is drawn in after being accused of having an affair with a married man known as ‘milkman’ (this is despite the narrator having a ‘maybe-boyfriend’). In fact, the milkman is stalking the narrator, and it is soon revealed that he is a paramilitary figure who holds great power in the community.

As for the community, and my affair with the milkman according to this community, I was now well in it, that being the case whether I was or not. It was put about I had regular engagements with him, rendezvous, intimate ‘dot dot dots’ at various ‘dot dot dot’ places.

A current of tension runs through the whole story and, in many ways, it’s a tension that is not fully realised with a single climactic moment. Instead, this ever-present, pervasive menace demonstrates how circumstances such as those during the Troubles, disrupt communities – you are left wondering who you can trust; who is not towing the party-line; who should be dobbed in. A couple of outstanding scenes highlighted this – the horrific slaughtering of the dogs; and the canny banding together of the women who sat silently in front of a traitor’s house, pointing it out to those in charge. Both scenes were chilling.

At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.

Of milkman’s pursuit, the narrator says –

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.

The text is dense and relentless, but there are moments of humour – I adored the ‘international couple’ (a husband and wife who left their family and the town for a life of competitive ballroom dancing), and the accounts of children in the town play-acting the international couple. I loved the ‘wee sisters’, and their penchant for the works of Virginia Woolf for their bedtime stories. Equally, some of the dialogue was great fun –

‘Still,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach nothing,’ he said. ‘Ach sure,’ I said. ‘Ach sure what?’ he said. ‘Ach sure, if that’s how you feel.’ ‘Ach sure, of course that’s how I feel.’ ‘Ach all right then.’ ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach,’ he said. ‘Ach,’ I said. ‘Ach.’
So that was settled.

Overall, Milkman is demanding reading, but I understand the hype and the accolades because Burns gives the reader something memorable and different.

3/5 Original.

The wee sisters demand chips for their tea –

Wee sisters were saying it would be good if I’d hurry up, that they were all set to go, all ready to play, just as soon as they’d eaten and as usual it was Fray Bentos they wanted. ‘With chips,’ they added. ‘Or Paris Buns,’ they added. ‘With chips,’ they added. Or ‘bananas with chips’, or ‘soft-boiled eggs with chips’, or ‘shop-bought pies with chips’, and they carried on, with everything with chips…  ‘Middle sister! Please hurry. Will you not hurry? Modest amounts please. But cannot you be more instanter than that?’

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 5): Belfast 13°-20° and Melbourne 7°-13°

10 responses

  1. I’ve seen this about so much, it’s interesting to read your excellent review. I know what you mean about being pleased you’ve read it rather that enjoying, I’ve added it to my tbr pile, I’m intrigued!

    • There are elements of the writing style that you’ll either enjoy or find annoying – either way, you’ll know within a chapter or two. Interestingly, I read a sample chapter years ago and rejected it (because of said style elements) but a friend pressed it on me so I gave it another go.

  2. I thought the oppressive community in this was so well evoked but I know what you mean about needing a special rating, I’ve just finished a book like that. It was written with such skill but I’ll happily never read it again!

  3. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  4. One of my favorite books ever! Not easy (to read, nor to “stomach” on an emotional level,) but so worth it in my opinion. Thanks for your review. I was so grateful to my local independent bookseller for suggesting it to me with shy caveats…Hurrah for our “indies”!

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