Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

Buy a Copy of Milkman

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Man Booker Prize 2018 winner Milkman by Anna Burns

The 2018 winner of the Man Booker Prize and the first time a woman writer from Northern Ireland had won the prize, is Anna Burns, with her third novel Milkman. The other short listed titles are mentioned below, with short summaries, should you be interested in reading them.

I watched the event on the BBC last night and before revealing the winner the announcer discussed the six titles with prominent blogger Simon of Savidge Reads.  He admitted having difficulty with Milkman initially, choosing to listen to it as an audio book, which he said allowed him to get into the rhythm of the narrative voice.

Although I haven’t read it (I’ve ordered it), it seems more of a ‘literary’ style novel than  plot driven, confirmed after reading the excellent essay Gender in Conflict by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, I’m convinced it’s definitely worthwhile reading and I’m glad it made it through such tough competition to win.

“She’s an extremely interesting voice, she’s witty and the way you hear her voice in your head, I think you’ve never heard a voice like it before.” Judge, Kwame Anthony Appiah

Having read the book three times, the judges highlighted the “distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist”. ‘Voice‘ seems to be the most often quoted aspect of the book, one that takes a while to get used to, then hooks the reader.

Speaking about her writing process, the 56-year-old author said her job as a novelist was “to show up and be present and attend. It’s a waiting process.” She “just had to wait for my characters to tell me their stories”

Born in Belfast though now living in East Sussex, she drew on her own experiences growing up in what she called “a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia”.

Synopsis

Milkman is a novel of unnamed characters set in an anonymous city, much like Belfast in the unsettled 1990s. The story is told through the voice of a teenage girl known only as middle sister, who, trying to remain inconspicuous, becomes anything but, when a man nicknamed the Milkman begins to pursue her. The tight-knit community around her notice, talk and assume things that propel her into an unwanted situation. It is not a plot driven tale of the Troubles, but rather an insight into the behaviours, conditioning and expectations of a community and their impact on a young woman.  It is written in a meandering, stream of consciousness voice Anna Burns says insisted on being heard.

Burns earlier novel No Bones (2001) is set in similar times in “the tiny, old Catholic district” of Ardoyne during the Troubles, while Milkman occurs in 1979 though refers to events occurring in the 1980s and ’90s.

In her essay Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado notes:

Burns explains that her writing explores “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm”. In particular, she indicates that gendered violence is everywhere, but it remains unacknowledged “in the context of the political problems, where huge things, physical, noisy things” happen “on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, on a television newsround-by-newsround basis”.

She goes on to give a more in-depth analysis of the categories and affiliations of genders and the expectations put upon men, women and children, to show who they belong to.

Thus Milkman explores how different, complicated categories of masculinity and femininity develop within a site of armed conflict involving both state and non-state forces. Via the male “renouncer-of-the-state” and “defender-of-the-state” characters, Burns examines what I will term “paramilitary masculinities” – gendered expressions of attributes, behaviours and agency associated with men, defined within the context of paramilitary struggle.

Furthermore, she also considers what I will call “paramilitary-adjacent femininities” through her characterisation of the “traditional women” and “paramilitary groupies” in the novel. These femininities are defined in accordance with the roles prescribed to them by paramilitary men. The “traditional women” in the novel run the household while the men are fighting or imprisoned. The “paramilitary groupies” and “renouncer-wives” support the men by looking good, keeping secrets, staying faithful and “making prison visits and tombstone visits”. The narrator does not want to belong to either subset; however, communal rules dictate that she must subscribe to one or the other group.

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

The other shortlisted authors/novels were:

Esi Edugyan (Canada) Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Escape is only the beginning. From the brutal cane plantations of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-filled streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black is the tale – inspired by a true story – of a world destroyed and the search to make it whole again. When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him. Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

Daisy Johnson (UK) Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though — almost a lifetime ago — and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature. A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water — a canal thief? — swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Rachel Kushner (USA) The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother. Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike, allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes. Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line — until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny. The Mars Room presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Richard Powers (USA) The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Nine strangers, each in different ways, become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable, ranging from antebellum New York to the late-twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, revealing a world alongside our own — vast, slow, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world, and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Robin Robertson (UK) The Long Take (Picador)

Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but — as those dark, classic movies made clear — the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties. While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it — yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.

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So have you read any from the shortlist? Did you have a favourite? Will you read Milkman?

Buy a Copy of One of the Shortlisted books

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