Milkman is compelling. It’s the kind of book that rarely makes even the longlist for the Man Booker prize: a page turner. I didn’t expect the latest winner of the Man Booker prize to be an easy read. That’s the first surprise in store from Anna Burns.
Another surprise: the story feels intensely political, not just because it’s set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but because it focuses on rumour and sexual harassment. Burns wrote the book four years ago, so the alignment with today’s politics is not intentional. Still, it’s hard not to draw parallels. Our unnamed narrator, middle sister, is telling us the story of unwanted male encroachment on her life and revealing the systems that minimised her problems and desires.
Even though the book is set in the 1970s, the story will not be foreign to women in the 21st century. Middle sister speculates about the status of her relationship with “maybe-boyfriend”. She avoids telling her mother about her relationship. She puts up with gossip and rumours and tries to escape reality by reading books. Mostly, she tries to deal with the fact that her own concerns – her depression and unwanted romantic pursuit by the milkman – are dismissed because if nothing violent occurs, “nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?”
While everything is non-specific – places and people are referred to by placeholder names – female perspective lies at the core of the story. Middle sister is 18 years old and dealing with inescapable community expectations. Problems arise from her position as a woman and her refusal to conform to the unnamed society’s expectations. The milkman looms in the background, ready to exploit the power structures in her community to get to her. It’s a simultaneously terrifying and brilliant exposition of the social pressure placed upon women.
What begins as social pressure morphs into danger and fear. Our protagonist becomes frustrated and withdrawn as her desires are subverted and ignored by forces outside of her control. Milkman is witty on the surface, but there’s a darkness beneath that makes the novel unsettling. It’s a story about a society where difference is held within, and Burns focuses on the psychological impact of that culture. The book is not a light read, despite the black humour and the laugh out loud moments.
If you want a novel about the Troubles packed with action, this is not the right book for you. The stream of consciousness narration often leaves us wandering through the narrator’s mind for pages of unending paragraphs. But what the novel lacks in concrete plot, it makes up for in emotional depth. When confronted with a page of dense text without so much as a paragraph break, the meandering quality of the narration can be off-putting. Those extended digressions are meaningful and witty and packed with illuminating comments, so it’s worth reading past the initial impression and immersing yourself in the text.
Milkman is a brilliant novel. While it was an unusual choice for the Booker (and many have criticised the decision), it deserves the wide audience that this award will bring. Read it for black humour, unique narrative style, and above all, the moments where Anna Burns reveals a comment on society that is perfectly fitting for 2018.Support Villainesse