Milkman by Anna Burns
Published by Faber & Faber, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
My main takeaway from Milkman is renewed interest in the line between appreciation and enjoyment when it comes to reading. Well-conceived and skilfully constructed, Anna Burns’ Booker winning novel is undoubtedly a perceptive and valuable piece of literature, but I can’t pretend that always made for a particularly pleasant reading experience.
The plot is thin at best, but what we do get concerns a young woman attempting to navigate the traps of daily life during the Troubles. Attracting the attention and harassment of an undesirable man known only as ‘Milkman’, she too becomes undesirable by association; the focus of rumour and vilification within her community. The story itself takes a backseat, however, the book propelled far more by its singular narrative voice, and its evocation of a society ruled by institutionalised oppression, violence, and division.
I greatly admired Milkman for its themes and overall tone, and was impressed by its contemplative, intersectional look at how toxic hearsay can be within a community, with Burns taking into account wider societal issues including gender, class, religion, and sexuality; all with a tinge of absurdist black humour, and a backdrop of looming danger.
Stylistically, I really liked the omission of character names. Sometimes, this can feel like an unnecessary gimmick, but in this instance, it was used to great effect. Characters repeatedly have their sense of identity taken from them, their truth warped by lies and scandal. Our names are the biggest markers of our individuality, and so, to me, stripping them away reflected the notion of a stolen sense of control over your own life. On another level, it establishes the idea that these characters are every-people; interchangeable with those in many communities across Ireland at this time, when experiences of violence were the norm. It also draws a parallel with the level of suppression the characters are subject to. When association with virtually anything could get you into trouble with ‘the other side’, thoughts, words, hopes, feelings, and opinions had to be omitted or hidden. Burns riffs on this idea of self-censorship, her characters living under such a strict regime, and so afraid of standing out, that even the potential connotations of a name have become hazardous.
For all that, the stream-of-consciousness style can be very frustrating. With little plot to grasp onto in the first place, its circular narrative and repeated tangents can make the book feel overly long, and needlessly verbose. For me, its merits made the effort worthwhile. It’s the kind of book I’m glad to have read, but which I’d be hesitant to recommend widely. In the hands of the right reader (those with an interest in Irish history, and voice-driven studies of an insular community), it offers an intelligent, shrewdly observant, and original reading experience that captures the atmosphere of a society simmering with tension, and tearing itself apart from the inside out.
If you fancy giving Milkman a go, you can pick up a copy by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!