Author: Anna Burns
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 348 pages
Genre: Bildungsroman, Psychological Fiction
In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him – and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend – rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive.
The Follies of our Times
On my observation, the Man Booker Prize possesses that unconventional wisdom in picking out its winners. When a lesser known Irish author’s third work was picked as the 2018 winner, the world of literature can’t help but roll its collective eyes. Inevitably, Anna Burns’ Milkman Man Booker success was met with skepticism. “It’s too difficult,” was the general. These unspectacular reviews didn’t stop me, rather it only fueled my interest in the book even though I barely have an iota on what it was about.
It is with great gratitude that I was able to purchase a copy of the book this year. Without second thoughts (and even though I have tons of to-be-read books on my bookshelves), I immediately immersed into this mindboggling read. What does this book hold?
“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died,” thus enigmatically begins the tale of middle sister (no specific name, just middle sister).
Despite her idiosyncrasies, middle sister enjoyed her uninteresting existence under a cloud of obscurity. Nevertheless, she still stands out in the unnamed city (now get the hind: all the characters and places are anonymous) she lived in. Her idiosyncrasies then caught the attention of a paramilitary she referred to as the “milkman”. Who is this mysterious character? How will he disrupt the obscurity of middle sister’s existence?
“Cats are not adoring like dogs. They don’t care. They can never be relied upon to shore up a human ego. They go their way, do their thing, are not subservient and will never apologise. No one has ever come across a cat apologising and if a cat did, it would patently be obvious it was not being sincere.” ~ Anna Burns, Milkman
Eccentric, surrealistic but bold.
These are the three words that summarize my thoughts on this Man Booker Prize-winning masterpiece. Embedded in the rich tapestry which Burns carefully weaved are profound messages and themes. What she came up with is an eccentric but compact mixture of reality and of the abstract. Her unnamed characters, living in an unnamed city in an unnamed time all point out to deep thoughts and concepts that are deeply buried in the narrative.
“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 by something that wasn’t there?”
The above line strongly portrays the initial subject that thrummed up the surface is obsession and possessiveness. This subject is almost always the first thing that one reads about when one searches for reviews of the book – its reference to the #MeToo movement that has swept the (Hollywood) world over recently. But as one digs deeper into the narrative, the book goes beyond matters of predatory sexual behaviors and obsessions.
“After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers, centuries and millennia of being one colour officially and three colours unofficially, a colourful sky, just like that, could not be allowed to be.” ~ Anna Burns, Milkman
With the involvement of a guerilla, the novel branches out into a portion of the history of Northern Ireland (which is allegorically represented in the story). The story takes a dip into the surface tensions that have been present in Irish history. Ironically, the novel portrayed neither actual paramilitary or state violence. Rather, Burns took more on the treacherous forces that crack the foundations of society such as tribalism, conformism, patriarchy, the dogmas of religion, and even the stigmas surrounding mental health and disabilities.
Through Belfast, Burns vividly captured an ecosystem of protracted conflicts where the wrong dalliance or allegiance is met with steep repercussions, intense scrutiny and unfounded criticisms. The dichotomies were astutely interspersed in the narrative, couched in passages such the right and wrong butter; tea of allegiance and tea of betrayal; and our shops and their shops. “The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them,” shortly describes the widespread distrust on state forces.
These insidious forces wrap a shroud of darkness. Despite the deep darkness, nascent lights illuminate, as beacons of hope sparkle. One ray of hope is a group of feminist women fondly called “issue women”, a group resented yet protected the by traditionalist women. Then of course, there is the real milkman who has become an outcast because of his refusal to have weapons be buried in his garden. He also exhibited great opposition against floggings and kangaroo courts.
“She meant depressions, for da had had them: big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions.” ~ Anna Burns, Milkman
Despite the limited plot, the narrative flowed well. There were very few breaks in between and the story is related in long paragraphs (kind of reminds me of Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch although not as tedious). The diaphanous flow of the narrative is largely due to the main narrator’s astute observations and witty remarks. The strength of her character keeps the reader riveted. Hats of to Anna Burns for developing two fascinating characters, even if it includes a creepy invention.
What makes the narrative stand out is its universality. By omitting names of names of people and places, Burns made the story resonate on a global scale; everyone can be middle sister and milkman and it can happen anywhere. The lack of time element ensures this astute observation. These mysteries, however, doesn’t preclude the reader from appreciating the story. However, let’s take it, the plot, the writing style, and the overall structure is not for everyone.
Milkman started as a story of the things that are wrong and that can go wrong in a society. But through its apolitical and unique narrator, the story slowly evolved into one of hope, and of positive message. It may not be your typical read but its depth, and its colorful palette charm the reader. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is eccentric at times. But it is this kind of heavy but fascinating and bold reads that make the reading journey worthwhile. The relevance of novels like Milkman resonate beyond the present.
About the Author
Anna Burns was born on 1962 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Her first novel, No Bones, was published in 2001 and relates the story of a girl growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. It is considered an important work, and won the 2001 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, Little Constructions, was published in 2007. It is the ironic tale of a woman seeking retribution as she was born into a family of from a criminals.
Her third work, Milkman, published in 2018, won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. This made Burns the first Northern Irish winner of the prestigious award. Burns also published a novella, Mostly Hero, in 2014.
She currently lives in East Sussex, England.