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 enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.
This synopsis, combined with the intriguing opening sentence "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." were clues which gave me some indication that this would not be a run of the mill story. However, even those clues could not fully prepare me for the remarkable literary journey I was about to embark on!
This novel is set in an unnamed city during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland; the exact date is not mentioned but clues point to the 1990s, when the modern-day conflict was decades old and patterns of behaviour were well-established. It is narrated by an unnamed 18-year-old girl who is trying to keep a low profile in a community which is divided by religious and tribal strife. One of the most striking things about this story is that, with one exception about three-quarters of the way through it, no proper names are used. The protagonist is “middle sister”, she lives at home with her ma (her da is dead), she goes jogging with “third brother-in-law”, is in love with her “nearly-boyfriend”, her other sisters are referred to by their position in the family, with the three youngest, still living at home, being a collective “wee sisters”. There is “Milkman”, her stalker; the “real milkman”, who is indifferent to what anyone says about him; characters who are “beyond the pale”, such as “tablets girl” and a group of feminists who are known as the “issue women”, who are way, way beyond the pale. The UK is referred to as “over-the-water” and, in this Catholic community, anything which hints of any connection with “over-the-water”, such as having the “wrong” name, will get boys “bashed”, whilst girls with the “wrong” name will “just get dirty looks”.
The fact that middle sister walks along reading a nineteenth century novel (she doesn’t like twentieth century ones!) is not only a striking metaphor for “keeping your head down”, it also captures this young woman’s attempts to navigate her journey towards adulthood her own way. However, it is also behaviour which is bound to mark her out as different and being “different” in a community which sees homogeneity as key to survival, is sure to attract criticism and suspicion, as well as unwanted attention. For our protagonist the most threatening attention comes in the form of the creepy, menacing Milkman, a 41-year-old married man, a senior figure in the paramilitary who has a reputation for grooming young women. When he starts to accompany her when she is running on her own, his stream of sexual innuendo making it clear that he is “interested” in her, the gossip starts, with the community coming to believe they are having an affair. Suddenly she is “interesting”, something no one aspires to because of the danger it represents.
The fact that the characters are not given names evocatively captures the oppressive nature of any totalitarian community or state: people are dehumanised if they aren’t given names. As I was reading I felt more and more drawn into a world which was full of tension, claustrophobia, menace, paranoia and violence, one which felt threatening and restricting and where a concept of personal identity all too often had its roots in tribalism. In any community where dysfunctional attitudes and behaviour have become entrenched over decades, there is an apparently easy acceptance of what should be totally unacceptable, and this allows anomie to become the norm.
As the story progressed I felt totally engaged with middle sister as she tried to find ways of being herself whilst, at the same time, not being rejected by those around her. I felt enveloped by her pain and confusion, particularly when her elder siblings and her mother seemed to be her worst critics rather than people she could trust to support her. The narrative captures something of what it must feel like to have to live surrounded by violence, living a life which “simply has to be lived and died in extremes”. How feeling constantly fearful and uncertain is a state of mind which is inculcated from early childhood, eroding self-belief. It is one which creates an atmosphere of suspicion which is so toxic that you don’t even dare to trust those who are probably trustworthy, who could offer support, thus leaving you feeling isolated and vulnerable. The insistent nature of the narrative evokes the horror of having to live under constant surveillance and of feeling powerless in the face of such scrutiny. In such a situation is acknowledging your very powerlessness, and then finding ways to develop a sense of acceptance and detachment, the only way to wrest back some feeling of personal power?
A central theme in this story reflects the way in which women are often treated in an overtly patriarchal society, where casual objectification of them so easily leads to the tolerance of physical and sexual abuse. However, such disempowerment is often a defensive reaction to feeling threatened and I really enjoyed the fact that the author explored how, even in a society where men appear to be in charge, when women act cooperatively and determinedly they can enforce change.
Middle sister’s narrative voice takes the form of a stream of consciousness, which is as relentless as it is compelling, and it was this which inexorably drew me into her world and her daily struggles to negotiate that world. She is a bright, thoughtful, caring character whose way of escaping some of the horrors which surround her is to immerse herself, through reading novels from a different century, in a gentler, more benign world – I think most readers will recognise this as one of the joyful benefits of reading! However, this story is anything but gentle and the relentless reflections and anxieties of the main character lead to paragraphs which are frequently several pages long. This, combined with the fact that there are only seven chapters, means that there are few natural breaks for the reader to find an escape from this relentlessness and initially I found this rather difficult. However, once I was able to “hear” her voice I found it hard to put the book down and, several days after finishing it, especially as I write this review, that voice remains with me. This is a story which requires time and concentration, but that commitment will reward you with an unforgettable character and a thought-provoking story. It is a story which is frequently dark and disturbing, but it is one which has moments of deliciously dark humour – as well as some delightful lightness provided by the “wee sisters”! The fact that the author’s use of language is so powerfully evocative and, at times, poetic, makes this a book which I know will remain in my memory for a long time. I think it is a masterpiece, fully deserving of its place on the Man Booker longlist – and I very much hope it makes the shortlist!
Although the background landscape to “Milkman” is Northern Ireland, this is a story which could just as easily be set in any community facing an oppressive regime, be that political, social or religious or, on a more intimate level, in any tight-knit community. I think that this lends it a universal authenticity which, along with the wide-ranging themes explored in the story, would make it a wonderful choice for reading groups.
Wow, what a first line. I don’t know where to start with this one. To begin with, I’m really glad I went with the audio because the narrator, Brid Brennan,
1970s Northern Ireland, probably Belfast but how would I know because it’s never revealed. No name for the 18 year old protagonist except ‘middle sister.’ Other characters include ‘first brother in law’, ‘lifelong friend,’ ‘oldest sister,’ ‘maybe boyfriend,’ ‘milkman,’ ‘the milkman’….well, you get the idea. Burns doesn’t want to reveal too much I guess. Why she chose to have one character called ‘milkman’ and another character called ‘the milkman,’ is beyond me.
Rumors, gossip and innuendo fill the stream of consciousness narrative as middle sister tells the story of her life. Her biggest claim to fame is the fact that she is being stalked by Milkman (not the milkman) as she ‘walks while reading’ through her ‘area.’ She has a somewhat relationship with ‘maybe boyfriend’ but the gossip all points to an affair with milkman, an apparent paramilitary.
There is a constant threat of violence and a continual feeling of dread for all of the characters. The fear is palpable and is easily felt through the incredibly intense plot and the wonderful audio narrative. But then, just when you think all hell is going to break loose, things seem to resolve themselves a bit and I found I could finally breathe again. And yet there is a unique sense of humor to this sassy teenager on the cusp of senior citizen because of her experiences.
I’m not rating this book, at least not now, because the more I think about it the more I change my mind. Brilliant? Or have I been had? Don’t know. No idea. Must consult third brother in law.
The story is told in train-of-thought first person. In the reading, I was reminded more than once of Kafka, but I'm sure there's nothing unique about that reaction to this tale. Things are cranked up past "realism" just a touch, by the narrative strategy in particular and the characterizations, until we are nudged into fable-land, with occasional touches of magical realism.
As I read, though, it occurred to me that the core of this story is the fact that the narrator, is being harrassed by a man more than twice her age. While this is woven into the conditions of the troubles and their inherent violence and pressures, I think you could really peel away those elements and you would still have a powerful tale of the debilitating effects experienced by a young girl being harassed and having no one to believe her story.
This is wildly inventive fiction that's not quite like anything I've ever read before. And how often can you say that as a reader?
MILKMAN is an absolute masterclass from Anna Burns in how -- word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page -- to build an ever-deepening mood of
"The whole community's a suspect community. Everybody has a file on them. Everybody's house, everybody's movements, everybody's connections constantly are checked and kept an eye on. . . . With all their monitoring, their infiltrating, their intercepting, listening at posts, drawing-up of room layouts, of position of furniture, of ornament placement, of wallpaper, of watch lists and geo-profiling, cutting feeds and feeding feeds, and 'mother goose' and divination by tea-leaves and not least, with their helicopters flying over an alienated, cynical, existentially bitter landscape, it's no wonder everyone has files on them. . . . They even photograph shadows."
Violence is ever-present in MILKMAN. The overt violence of this world speaks for itself, but what Burns gets just right is the *threat* of violence that always lurks just off stage. There's a constant sense of menace and dread. Everyone is uneasy all the time, and Burns keep the tension ratcheted up. It's an edgy world these characters live in, and it's an edgy reading experience.
No one is safe -- not even the cats and dogs.
Although Burns has set her novel in a very real and specific place in the past (Northern Ireland during the Troubles), the effect of her language and the sort of hell she's created give the story an almost dystopian, totalitarian feel. It brought Margaret Atwood to mind for me. Or George Orwell. Or Julian Barnes in THE NOISE OF TIME. Somehow she's created an atmosphere that's both surreal and all too real.
And yet, for all that, MILKMAN is very, very funny. It may be a grim tale, but it's told in a voice that's full of dry wit and irony. You can't help laughing, even if you're wincing at the same time. Dark humor indeed.
I haven't been as entranced by the pure power of a novel's language since Jon McGregor's RESERVOIR 13. Burns's prose is the dominant presence in the book. It's almost like a character itself, driving the story forward. The narration is a relentless stream that steadily builds in power. Her rhythm and cadence are remarkable, and the overall effect is mesmerizing.
As you may already know, places, groups, and characters deliberately don't have names: we meet "middle sister" (our narrator), "maybe-boyfriend, "longest friend," "teacher," "Somebody McSomebody," "third brother-in-law," and of course "Milkman" (definitely not to be confused with "real milkman"). My initial reaction was that this felt like a gimmick, but I quickly came to love it. In the end, I found the intentional imprecision and misdirection of her language to be genius. It's deliberately unsettling, and it adds to the creepy sense of dislocation that makes the book so effective.
MILKMAN isn't perfect. It's a big, dense book. The language and the stream-of-consciousness style of narration do take some getting used to. The sentences and paragraphs are long and there are few chapters or other logical breaks. There are digressions in middle sister's narration that can be distracting. It's obviously not everyone's cup of tea, and I get that. I can't help feeling myself that it could have been a leaner and tighter book, and maybe that it could have more effective as a result. But this is the book Anna Burns gave us, and I'll gladly take it as it is. It's an incredibly powerful statement about violence and repression against women, and it's incredibly powerful period. It was a mind-blowing and richly rewarding reading experience.
I both read and listened to the book, and it was brilliant both ways. That said, I'll put in a special plug for the audio-book narration of Brid Brennan, with her Ulster accent. She's pitch-perfect, and she gets the sardonic humor in middle sister's voice just right. For a book in which language is so important, especially in its specific setting, I enjoyed actually *hearing* the language. And I think that helped me approach the prose when I would go back to reading in print form. As I went back and forth, each method of reading reinforced the other, in the most marvelous way.
I was truly delighted when MILKMAN won the Man Booker Prize. I'm sometimes disappointed with the big book prizes (aren't we all?). But a result like this restores my faith in the role prizes can play in literature. It's a meaningful success, and I'm very pleased for Anna Burns.
MILKMAN is a unique and special book. And I won't forget it anytime soon.
This is the story of "the Troubles" in Ireland, where both British and IRA forces are present in the lives and minutia of the characters of the home neighbourhood of our narrator. In this oppressive atmosphere, standing out or drawing attention to yourself can be dangerous as our narrator discovers. First, there's her habit of walking-while-reading....and reading literary classics to boot. Then, there is the unwanted attention she draws from a paramilitary leader known as the milkman. Through her eyes, we see the pressure to remain anonymous, the effects of living under virtual military rule (by both sides), and the effects of gossip and rumour. This is a powerful novel and I'm glad I stuck with it.
I should know by now that a book that wins the Man Booker prize is going to do nothing for me. With the exception of White Tiger, I have never enjoyed a Man Booker prize winner and Milkman was no exception. I was listening to an excellent reading by Bríd Brennan, complete with
Just as an example, here is a typical paragraph:
"Considering alone his avowals of devotion towards women, his mission of idolatry, his supreme glorification and deification and view that on earth in women was the life of things, the breadth of things, the cyclicality, essential nature, higher aspect, the best, most archetypal and utmost mystery of everything."
And this was then followed by an endless discourse about whether or not the sky was actually blue?
There was much scope to provide an understanding of life as a young girl during the time of the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. The way women were treated, the boys' names that were or weren't acceptable, who was 'in' and who was 'beyond the pail', This book kind of suffuses this into the reader by osmosis, but by the same token, it was becoming more and more irritating and I do my reading for enjoyment; I was not enjoying the style of this book at all.
My first abandoned book this year :(
As is increasingly the case recently with Booker winners, this was a chore to read and extremely disjointed and
The names you use for people, things and places become incredibly important in conflict situations - they are one of the most direct ways for people to tell whether you are "one of us" or "one of them". Burns foregrounds this by stripping names out of her story altogether, substituting her own system of epithets (the narrator is "middle sister", the IRA are "renouncers", etc.) to reinforce the strangeness of what's going on. And she carefully sets middle sister just far enough outside the community norm to be aware of its strangeness, but not far enough out that she isn't constantly pulled back by her fear of cutting herself off altogether.
Some reviewers seem to have a hard time with the unusual, very turned-in-on-itself style of this book, but I found that it really drew me in and made me want to go on reading for longer than I had intended.
The story of middle sister's stalking by the sinister milkman - we know from the outset how it's going to end - is much less important here than the insight we get into the bizarre details of middle sister's world and how it works. Anyone who reads this book is likely to be stuck for life with the visual image of middle sister reading nineteenth-century novels whilst walking across town (complete with "desk lamp" for after dark), or of the wee sisters and their friends en masse in the street in their glitziest dressing-up clothes to re-enact the moment when a famous Northern Ireland ballroom-dancing pair fell whilst waltzing. This is obviously going to be a film and that will be the key image in the final montage!
(You might have thought that Toni Morrison cornered the market in characters called Milkman with Song of Solomon, but here's Anna Burns going one better - two Milkmen in the same book!)
Middle Sister lives in a city in Northern Ireland in the late seventies. She lives in a no-go area but survives by keeping her mind firmly in nineteenth century literature, her not quite relationship with maybe boyfriend and in her evening French class in the center of town. Then she is noticed by a man high up in the IRA, named Milkman, which throws her life into chaos as she tries to figure out how to protect herself. As his attentions are noticed by her neighbors, she's forced into ever tighter control of her actions and words.
What's so delightful about this novel is the protagonist's voice. It's impossible not to hear her accent as she speaks and my reading slowed down to the speed of a person speaking, telling a story of what happened back in the seventies. Here she is talking about maybe boyfriend's house, which is filled with parts of cars and various machines, to the point of being almost unlivable.
As for my reaction, I could bear the cluttered state of 'Come in and welcome, but you're going to have to squeeze a little' during times I stayed over because of the normality of the kitchen and of his bedroom and the half normality of the bathroom. Mainly though, I could bear it because of the 'maybe' level of our relationship, meaning I didn't officially live with him and wasn't officially committed to him. If we were in a proper relationship and I did live with him and was officially committed to him, first thing I would have to do would be to leave.
Milkman is told from deep within the musings of Middle Sister, and like thoughts do normally, themes and subjects circle in and out of her mind as she goes about trying to live her life in a place that isn't entirely compatible with life. This is a very, very good book, but it requires attention and a willingness to slow down and allow Middle Sister to tell her story in her own way.
This story is set in Northern Ireland in the late 70s
The author effectively portrays the impact of living in an oppressive environment: “So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘too joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in those recesses.” underneath.”
The characters are named in a generic way. Middle sister is in a relationship with “maybe boyfriend.” What a great way to describe a relationship that is on shaky ground. She is part of a large Catholic family and has three “wee sisters.” I love the wee sisters. They insert a dose of much-needed humor into the story: “‘Wee sisters!’ we cried. ‘Where’d you get these? What on earth is going on?’ ‘Hush, older sisters,’ they said. ‘We’re busy. We’re trying to understand their viewpoint.’ After that they returned to poring over their broadsheets and tabloids while we, their elder sisters, disbelievingly looked on. Then we looked at each other – me, third sister, second sister and first sister. Trying to understand their viewpoint! What obscurity would wee sisters utter next?”
I like the generic names. It seems appropriate in an environment where people lose a part of themselves and are harassed for even small manifestations of individuality (e.g., middle sister is ostracized for reading while walking, a seemingly minor activity). Also, using real names can put people under suspicion, even if not deserved.
I became invested in the outcome. I cared whether or not middle sister was going to be mistreated by this nefarious Milkman, and even breathed an audible sigh of relief when one potentially harmful situation passed her by. The author does a fine job of conveying what happens to a person targeted by a more powerful person in a situation where she has little control: “I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.”
This book is written in stream-of-consciousness, using long paragraphs with few breaks. I can enjoy stream of consciousness when it is well done, and it is here, but I could have used a few more places to rest my eyes. But this is a minor complaint. I found it extremely creative and liked it very much.
The one thing I found weird was the author’s
Some people say this book is funny. That scares me.
If you’re going to read this, I suggest looking up a bit about 1970s Belfast and the author’s experience of it.
A different experience.
Milkman reviews me because: middle class comfortable unthreatened global north white male. I sit in my armchair and I struggle with a book that at first seems a bit tedious, and I think oh my goddess it’s another smartfart Booker Prize winning tome that is incomprehensible to mere mortals. Very clever, Ms. Burns, I’m sure, but can I be bothered?
But, you know, stubborn, and anyway summer holidays and not much to do and all that, and I read a bit more. Why am I inside this narrator’s strange mind? Why can’t she name her characters without ridiculous relational pseudonyms? A voice whispers “Troubles” but what would a voice know?
On the other hand, the narrator – and perhaps Burns – does provide a clue: “people were quick to point fingers, to judge, to add on even in peaceful times, so it would be hard to fathom fingers not getting pointed and words not being added, also being judged in these turbulent times, resulting too in not having your feelings hurt upon discovering others were talking about you, as in having individuals in balaclavas and Halloween masks, guns at the ready, turning up in the middle of the night at your door” (28).
Yeah, whatever. Pour me another gin and adjust the sunshade and I suppose I’ll read on because: summer holidays and ennui and nothing better to do.
Sometimes “aha” comes so slowly. I stumble on. Not exactly “can’t put down” but “maybe it’ll get better.”
And it doesn’t.
But slowly I do. Because slowly I become absorbed in a journey through a damaged mind, a mind surrounded by un-certainty and un-safety and of course no one has names because names kill. And slowly Ms. Narrator (and her friend Ms. Burns) grab me and shake me and whittle away my creature comforts until I too am absorbed in a world where trust cannot exist (I am reminded of the vastly different but same-same world of 1984 where trust perhaps kills).
And I stumble on to the end of the book and like the bored sexual partner in Eliot’s Wasteland I mutter “thank God that’s over” except that three months later my life has been changed, my perspectives altered irreversibly, the novel still in my mind, and I know that I have been impacted immeasurably by a piece of writing that I cannot review but only confess to having been reviewed, judged, and altered by.
This is an untimely review in several respects. It's about a book that won the Man Booker prize in 2018, so I imagine almost no one is reading it now. And what I have to say runs against what Kwame Anthony Appiah said, speaking for the judges:
"None of us has ever read
This isn't wrong, but it orients a reader's response in the wrong way. Burns takes pains to keep everything generic. Northern Ireland isn't mentioned, and neither is England (it is "the flag" or "the country over the water") or even Belfast, and people are "maybe-boyfriend," "longest friend," "third sister," and so on. The utility of that for this novel is clear: it permits Burns to give voice to the way her main character isolates herself from the politics of her community: she experiences people as signs of different types of permitted, preferred, and problematic relationships. The precedent for this studied anonymity is existential literature, especially Kafka and Beckett but also the Coetzee of "Waiting for the Barbarians" or Buzzati's "Tartar Steppe," and there are hints of Calvino and others in the same lineage.
I don't read novels to find out about the world, but inevitably many things in Milkman present themselves a found facts from Burns's upbringing. She couldn't have invented, for example, the idea that in a neighborhood opposed to the "state" (England), and full of "renouncers" and paramilitaries, people didn't want to go to the hospital because they'd be reported to "the flag" and "the army" or "the police" might try either to turn them into spies or spread the word that they were spies. In the course of Milkman I learned a number of probable facts like that. But I didn't read it to experience Belfast in the 1970s, and those realizations were intrusive.
As a novel, it is a study in "brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance," as Appiah also says, and it achieves its effect line by line. The precedent for Burns's blank, affectless, but curiously tortured prose is Gertude Stein, and Stein is also the source of some overly wrought passages, like the final clause in this sentence:
"And he experimented with food, thinking all the time he was an average guy, with no average guy, not even his mates, who did like him, thinking him this also." (32)
Milkman is exceptionally tightly crafted. It reads at an unchanging slow pace from the first page to the last, again like Stein. The anomalies are therefore all the more obtrusive. One is the main character's own reading, which is 18th and 19th c. European literature: Gogol (20), "The Brothers Karamazov, Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, or Madame Bovary" (17) and so on. These are just tokens of the narrator's dangerous detachment from her politicized surroundings--they're a 20th c. version of Madame Bovary's gothic novels. They're also obtrusive because they refer too directly, too specifically, to Burns's own teenage years, and they are too distant from Burns's own literary references.
The mostly tightly woven prose helps make the book claustrophobic, helps convey its stifled fear and anger, helps express the narrator's ostrich-in-the-sand survival strategy. It's a really unusual accomplishment, and it is at its strongest when Burns gives us 2- or 3-page essays on different social dilemmas and particular constructions of lies and self-deception.
As in the early modern "novel-essays" studied by Roberto Ercolino, Sianne Ngai, and others, and like Kafka's parables and Beckett's dramas, things that actually happen are either muffled by rumor or ineffective at changing the narrator's life. Plot is inimical to this kind of novel because it presents easy solutions to problems that the author has demonstrated, over many pages of careful prose, to be either insoluble or so easily renewed that there is no point in trying to solve them.
That is why the last two chapters of Milkman, beginning around p. 260, should be seen as disappointing. If they aren't, that's because readers expect a certain kind of plot, one with resolutions, justice, and especially an escape for the beleaguered heroine. In the last hundred pages the narrator's mother finally connects with her true love after an agonizing mismatched marriage; the narrator witnesses one of her brothers belatedly connecting with the woman he loves, who has been poisoned and is nearly blind; the narrator has a delicious revenge against one of her sisters; she herself is poisoned and nearly dies; the man who has been following her around is killed; another man who has been harrassing her is beaten; her "maybe-boyfriend" turns out to be bisexual and more in love with his male partner; and she realizes at last that it's been useless to try to ignore the place she lives in and bury herself in 19th c. novels.
Those are all spoilers, but they shouldn't be, because until p. 260 or so this is not the kind of novel that can be spoiled by plot points. There are no spoilers in Kafka, Beckett, or others, because there is no sense that a dramatic turn of events could solve or resolve anything. Plot, from that perspective, is fantasy. Nothing in my reading of the first 260 pages is diminished by knowing the things I have mentioned: those are dense pages, written with an exceptional degree of control, and it's just too bad, in retrospect, and Burns felt she needed a sudden string of revenges, epiphanies, morals ("how terrifying it was not to be numb," p. 294), and happy endings to wrap up her novel. Beckett, Kafka, and even Stein could have told her she didn't.