by Anna Burns

Paperback, 2019





Minneapolis, MN : Graywolf Press, 2019.


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.

Media reviews

Als Anna Burns 2018 für ihren Roman Milkman mit dem Man-Booker-Preis ausgezeichnet wurde, tobte das verbissene politische Ringen um eine harte oder grüne EU-Außengrenze zwischen Irland und Nordirland. Burns konnte, als sie mit dem Roman über Belfast in den 1970ern zur Zeit des
Show More
Nordirlandkonflikts begann, nicht absehen, dass er ein Buch der Stunde würde. Die Angst, dass der EU-Austritt Großbritanniens alte Wunden aufbrechen lassen könnte, ist heute aber noch immer nicht ausgestanden.
Show Less
1 more
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,” begins this strange and intriguing novel that tackles the Northern Ireland conflict from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl with no interest in the
Show More
Troubles...Anna Burns, who was shortlisted for the Orange prize in 2002 with No Bones, which also depicted the Troubles, is excellent at evoking the strange ecosystem that emerges during protracted conflict – “this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification...What starts out as a study of how things go wrong becomes a study in how things go right, and the green shoots are not the work of the paramilitaries. The narrator of Milkman disrupts the status quo not through being political, heroic or violently opposed, but because she is original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique: different. The same can be said of this book.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member linda.a.
“In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her trouble and rumours
Show More
start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous …”
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ygifford
I tried... I really did. I started and stopped 3 times giving this book another chance. I even tried an audiobook. No... I can't do it. The endless lists of adjectives, the use of descriptors instead of names, the endless 'which is' and the unbearable writing style ... It's just too much. There is
Show More
a story there somewhere ... deep inside, it is just too much work to find it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member brenzi
”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.”

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,
Show More
was an absolutely fabulous narrator with a mesmerizing Irish brogue. I’m not sure I would have gotten anything out of an actual reading of the text. And believe me it was a challenging text.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member rocketjk
Evidently this is a novel of extremes of reaction. People either love it or hate it, for the most part. I found it difficultly depressing in some places and therefore hard to push through, but overall an awe inspiring (not a phrase I'm apt to overuse) achievement. We are inside the head of an
Show More
18-year-old woman living in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland which we have no doubt is Belfast during the troubles. We learn very early on that the girl (also unnamed, as is everyone else in the novel) is being harassed by a man more than twice her age, and that the man is a powerful, violent member of the Renouncers (the narrator's name for the IRA), and is known as Milkman. The girl does have a boyfriend her own age, sort of. They have decided that the pressures of being an actual couple are two great, have decided to keep their relationship technically unofficial, and so refer to each other as "maybe-boyfriend" and "maybe-girlfriend." The pressures put on the narrator by the harassment by this shadowing, powerful figure are only part of her problem, although they all, in a way, stem from them. Although our narrator is not, in fact, having an affair with Milkman, the rumormongers of the neighborhood, and they are prevalent, assume that she is. Disrespect, fear and resentment come her way. In the meantime the necessities of comportment set down by the Renouncers who run the neighborhood are many. In short, our narrator is living in a pressure cooker sure to have gradual and significant effect on a young, independently-minded girl. The fact that no one has a true name (siblings are called "first sister," "second brother," etc., for example) tightens the narrative vice, in that ever character sinks that much into the whole, and the story becomes about the community and its pressures, about how living in a pressure cooker of violence, forced conformity and innuendo, warp individual into ciphers, those who try to conform as well as those who become "beyond the pale" outcasts.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Wickabod

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
Show More
paranoia, suspicion, and dread. By the end of the novel, we almost feel trapped ourselves in the chilling and claustrophobic web she's spun. It's a repressive world of informers, prying neighbors, soldiers and paramilitaries, kangaroo courts, bombings, killings and torture, corruption, stalkers, rumors and innuendo, secrets and lies. There's "our side of the road" and "their side of the road"; "us" and "them." Everyone knows everyone's business, and there's no place to hide. One wrong word or thoughtless gesture can spell disaster. Perception is everything, and conformity is ruthlessly enforced.

"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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
This novel has received quite about of attention and quite a bit of praise, but it just didn't work for me. I finished it, but in the end, I was just glad it was over. People are unnamed (names are dangerous), and the political situation makes everyone susceptible to severe repercussions, maybe
Show More
murder. The most mundane things are reason for suspicious, things like “reading-while-walking.” There is very much a US vs. THEM mentality, and I had to compare to the US today. Sounds good, right? But almost nothing happened. There were seemingly endless thoughts expressed in seemingly endless sentences, circular , convoluted, and boring. I really didn't care about the characters, and even the violence seemed mundane except for the killing of cats and dogs, which I always find upsetting. The writing seemed pretentious and self-satisfied. It tried entirely too hard. This book just bored me.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LynnB
This book, in one way, grabbed me from the first 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." In another way, it took me a while to really get into the story because of the writing style -- few
Show More
chapters, long sentences and paragraphs, told largely as a monologue by the main character. But, I became used to the style, and the fact that no one was named. Then, I began to really appreciate the style as the form of the novel, in addition to the content, really sets the tone.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DubaiReader
I've given up!
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
Show More
genuine Irish accent, but even this could not make up for the unnecessary verbosity of this book. Huge credit to the narrator for making it to the end, I abandoned ship at 23%.

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 :(
Show Less
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5603. Milkman A Novel by Anna Burns (read 16 Dec 2018) (Mann-Booker prize in 2018) This is the 39th Booker winner I have read. I have read every such winner since the 1992 winner.
As is increasingly the case recently with Booker winners, this was a chore to read and extremely disjointed and
Show More
repetitious and while it portrayed situations in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles" the story it told was all through the words of an 18-year-old girl who described herself as naive but who was regularly fornicating with her 'maybe boyfriend'. Names of people are seldom used but appellations such as 'middle sister' and 'third brother-in-law' and 'wee sisters' are used generously and it grows very tiresome. The story moves at a snail's pace and a very mixed-up and tedious story it is. Since I normally finish a book I start I finished this book but was mighty glad to get to its inconclusive and non-revelatory end. I hesitated between giving it one star or a half star and on reflection it joins the 50 or so books (out of 5603 total) in my lifetime which I have given a half star--the lowest ranking possible.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thorold
Burns uses her experience of growing up in a republican neighbourhood of Belfast in the seventies to explore how a sense of conflict and embattlement can distort values in a small community. When the community detaches itself from the surrounding state and all authority and status are transferred
Show More
to the men who have the guns (or are believed to be in touch with the men who have the guns...), violence - political, sexual, or just casual - becomes the default way of exercising power, and the community runs on gossip, suspicion and fear. I was expecting this to be a very dark and bitter sort of book, but it deals with the claustrophobia and constant presence of sudden death in a surprisingly upbeat, often very funny, way, without in any way seeming to belittle the horror of what went on in those days.

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!)
Show Less
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
So Milkman won the Man Booker Prize and everybody was like, who is this Anna Burns and why has her pink book won the big prize, except for "everyone" substitute "me," because that was my reaction. Everyone else was probably fine.

So everybody's my next reaction to Milkman came a few pages in and
Show More
can best be summarized as "wow, wow, wow," because this is a fantastic book with a unique and marvelous voice and I'm so happy to have read it, except I'd like to still be reading it.

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member NeedMoreShelves
I started this novel in print, and found it to be tough going. Several weeks later I tried again as an audiobook, and found this to be the way to go. The reader is fantastic, and brings to life the inner dialogue of our unnamed narrator in a way I wasn't able to achieve with the print version. Even
Show More
so, this is a challenging read - so bleak as to almost feel dystopian, but set in a very real, not-so-distant past. I found the reading of this to be much like the reading of Virginia Woolfe - if I can find the rhythm, the novel will flow. I'm not surprised this is a divisive novel - I can't say I enjoyed it, but I do find myself still thinking about it several weeks after I've finished.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Castlelass
“I was going to die anyway, wouldn’t live long anyway, any day now I’d be dead, all the time, violently murdered – and that, I now understand, gave a certain edge. It offered a different perspective, a freeing-up of the fear option.”

This story is set in Northern Ireland in the late 70s
Show More
during “the troubles,” which are never specifically mentioned but obvious from the context. Eighteen-year-old protagonist middle sister is being stalked by a forty-something paramilitary leader called Milkman. The populace is living in the midst of terrorist activities and intimidation. Middle sister is subject to an array of rumors, solely due to the Milkman targeting her for his attentions: “Even at the outer limits of absurdity and contradiction people will make up anything. Then they will believe and build on this anything.”

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member HeatherWhitney
This is not an easy read. The paragraphs are dense, long, and the effect is of someone talking, in monotone, without pause. There is no break, no moment to really catch your breath. It is a different feel than I’ve ever experienced from a book.

The one thing I found weird was the author’s
Show More
changing voice. What I mean is that for the majority of the book her sentences are unembellished and direct. But then every once in a while you get these vocabulary words for god knows where. I suppose she’s supposed to be a big reader but you’d think the effect of that (e.g. an increased likelihood to introspect, which had she did not) would be more global than these pop-up words every once in a while .

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Michael_Godfrey
Strange: perhaps this book reviews me, rather than vice versa. Let’s deal with genre first. The answer is probably “yes.” It has a genre. I’m not sure it doesn’t have its own, unique genre. I’ll settle for stream of consciousness interior monologue political history. But I’ll be
Show More

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member icolford
It’s not often that a book comes along that offers the reader an experience unlike any he has previously encountered. Milkman is radical, innovative, immersive, not to mention challenging and, at times, brutally disorienting. The novel’s setting is an unnamed country at a time of civil unrest,
Show More
which it makes sense for us to assume is Northern Ireland in the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles, with communities divided along religious and political lines and where people live under a constant threat of violence perpetrated by two warring factions: the renouncers of the state and the state police. 18-year-old middle sister is the narrator. Middle sister comes from a family that, like most of the families she knows, has been adversely affected by the ongoing conflict: her brother and brother-in-law have met violent ends. Her father is also dead. What middle sister wants more than anything is to fly under the radar, live by her own rules, distance herself from the conflict and not call undue attention to herself. Unfortunately, she has grown into a beautiful young woman who, in her striving for anonymity, has developed habits and practices that, unbeknownst to her, have attracted precisely the kind of attention throughout the community that she hoped to avoid and made her the subject of rampant rumourmongering. Several things mark her as unusual: she runs for exercise, she reads books while walking, and she’s taking a night class in French. Specifically, middle sister has become an object of interest to the milkman, a high-ranking renouncer of the state, by all accounts a very dangerous man, who begins turning up when she least expects it, and who knows everything about her. Initially she is confused and frightened by his approach, unsure what he wants from her, uncertain how to behave toward him. When he talks to her, it is in a disarmingly circular manner, using language that demonstrates his thorough knowledge of her activities and relationships but is never overtly threatening or suggestive. And yet, these one-sided conversations (she never says anything) are filled with menace and innuendo, implying that a bond already exists between them and prodding her to change her conduct to suit community expectations. The action of the novel takes us through several anxious months in middle sister’s life, during which she struggles to make sense of what is happening while also making a series of startling discoveries about herself, her family, her “maybe-boyfriend,” and the meddling, hurtful, treacherous world in which she resides, where everyone is constantly being judged, where allegiances are assumed, and where to not act is in itself an act of defiance. The novel is narrated in a breathless rush. The prose is dense, the chapters are long, the paragraphs run on for pages. The language is sometimes repetitive. With few exceptions, characters are referred to by designations derived from some status or activity (“tablet girl’s sister,” “longest friend”) rather than names. There is conversation, but little in the way of dialogue. At times middle sister’s blasé observations about herself, her family, and others that make up her circle, are very funny. Milkman is a dazzlingly original work of fiction: a moving indictment of sectarian violence filled with moments of absurd energy and blistering honesty. It is also a book that demands that the reader give himself/herself to it completely, without reservation, because it must be read as it is written: breathlessly, in a rush. Without a doubt, middle sister is one of the more fascinating fictional characters you will encounter—we are invited deep into her consciousness where her heart, mind and soul are laid bare—and Anna Burns draws the brutal and tragic world in which she lives in minutely horrifying detail.
Show Less
LibraryThing member JimElkins
How plot can derail a novel

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
Show More
anything like this before... Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life."

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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member neal_
Brilliant! Love the dark humour.
LibraryThing member kayanelson
TOB-2019. It's rare that I'm not finishing a book in the TOB--but this book was awful. Did the Man Booker Committee even read this? I did find myself interested in the plot of the book. Why was the milkman after daughter and what happens. But the writing style just ruined this book for me. This
Show More
book could have been shortened by at least half. I made the decision to quit after reading pages about da's depression and all the thoughts her ma and she had about it. That does not move a book forward. Different thoughts, different writing styles, different structure, different plots--all these things can make a book stellar. In this case it made the book unreadable.
Show Less
LibraryThing member booklove2
Middle Sister is the heart of this nightmarish book. Middle Sister likes to read while walking, but only books from other centuries, which others find odd. One day while walking she runs into the sinister Milkman in his van, a paramilitary in what seems to be Ireland during the 1970s. Middle Sister
Show More
becomes the focus of gossip which gets out of control. I guess Middle Sister was really paranoid about that milkman after a while. But Middle Sister and all those around her are in constant fear, unable to even go into the hospital, instead keeping shed pharmacies. The book is written in an odd style - all over the place. I feel like the writing is very repetitive, sometimes giving three examples of the same idea, not trusting the reader to understand. It's a fine book if you're looking a thesaurus (in threes). But also, the general plot details seem to keep circling back on themselves. The only thing I can think of, is that this would be Middle Sister's unfiltered voice in a time of chaos and anxiety for her. I'm not really sure why this book is written the way it is, if it is from Middle Sister's perspective. At the very least, she only reads older books, as she hates the century she is living in, so shouldn't the book be written in an older style? If anything, if done right, that would make the writing more interesting. I liked Middle Sister, but if the reasoning for the writing style made more sense to me, I would have liked the book better. The Wee Sisters were fun. The glimpse into Tablets Girl made me wish she had a book for herself. The book is very dark, yet also maintains some humor on almost every page. The general plot seems very Kafkaesque while also being very much of the time of Ireland in the 1970s. It seems every novel IS Kafkaesque now, as LIFE is Kafkaesque now. Poor Kafka, you knew all along.
Show Less
LibraryThing member joannajuki
Although I've started a couple of other books since I finished "Milkman", as I lay in bed, insomniac, it drifted up to the surface of my mind as something sad that I couldn't release. I can't imagine a book that so distinctly illustrates how war moulds and damages people, even the physical
Show More
environment. A lot of that is in the covert nature of so much of the "Troubles" and its consequences for relationships, some of that is from the author's deep understanding of personality trying to burrow out security, where no heroism remains, even among people on the same side. Beautifully, poetically written in a naive voice, only a writer of this quality could possibly tarry so long over a build up of action and plot development. The downfall is that it is a very long, flat landscape of 'no glory', where the crucial love relationship resolves in one case in disappointment, in the other case in a kind of role-reversal dismissal through tragic end. Personally, I would have liked the main character to find out a bit more about 'Milkman', testing the limits of the powder-room training she had received. His shadow, the other milkman from beyond the Pale who just couldn't love anybody, simply hadn't ever learned to hate anybody. I think he lived.
Show Less
LibraryThing member asxz
I picked this up somewhat warily after it won the Man Booker because I had understood it wasn’t an easy read. It’s true that it has fewer paragraph and chapter breaks than I generally prefer, but it’s such a strong read that it’s hard to complain. It’s a historical novel that is urgent
Show More
and contemporary. It is a story about the Troubles that is both disturbing and properly funny. Funnier than The Sellout or any other novel I can think of recently that was marketed as a hilarious satire. It may be the confirmation bias talking, but this was a fine and worthy book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Main character is an 18 year old woman, living in an unnamed society under siege. Gossip and rumor control the society. Very 1984-sequel. Long dense sentences and chapters. Characters are also unnamed except for the Milkman, who stalks the main character.
LibraryThing member Rosareads
Tough reading
LibraryThing member thornton37814
In this book, the narrator and most persons in the book lack names, at least in the traditional sense. Instead they are referred to by relationship or occupation. One even sports the moniker McSomebody. The mother is "Ma." One person is named Peggy. Chapters seem endless. (One runs nearly 100
Show More
pages; several chime in at the 50-page range.) 1970s Northern Ireland provides a violent setting for the troubled eighteen-year-old narrator. I forced myself to finish this one, but at least I can say I read it.
Show Less



Page: 0.5061 seconds