Sunday, 3 February 2019


Milkman by Anna Burns  {Reviewed by STELLA}
Milkman took out the Man Booker prize in 2018 and has raised eyebrows, created debate about literary fiction (- is it too hard to read?) and divided readers into the 'likes' and the 'nots'. A typical Man Booker winner then? Yet, no: Anna Burns’s novel is refreshingly uncompromising, inventive and compelling. I was drawn in within a few pages - the style of writing is beguiling and the voice of the narrator, Middle Sister, is ever present in the reader’s mind, even when you rest between chapters if you dare to. Our eighteen-year-old has no conception of how her actions, or, more correctly, her inaction, impact the community, family and friends. Preferring to walk and read, an action that sees her attracting harsh criticism from friend and foe alike, to be distracted by the nineteenth century and perhaps even eighteenth-century classics, Middle Sister would like to distance herself from her social environment and, in particular, the politics of that place. There are no named characters and no place names yet we know that this is a place of threat and violence, that she lives in a close-knit community riven by religion, history and paranoia. Petty jealousies, posturing and gossip reinforce these divisions and add fuel to the flames. When the Milkman takes an interest in her - much to her confusion and, at first, annoyance and then, later, fear - she is drawn against her will into a web of threat and violence that she would rather ignore. Though, of course, we can easily see that there is a no way to ignore this politically violent and corrupt world, no matter if you go to French classes, avoid political discussion, or keep your head in the literature of the past. Burns brings us First brother-in-law (and third), Somebody McSomebody, the Wee Sisters, and - my favourite - Maybe-Boyfriend, with effortless conviction. The narrative and descriptions of place mark this as Ireland during the height of the Troubles - more specifically, Belfast of the 1970s. From the beginning, despite some forewarning, there is tension - a tension that has sharp teeth. Threat invades from all sides. Especially frightening are the scenes with the Milkman. Despite this, the novel brims with humour, quirky anecdotes and snappy observations of relationships, both familial and romantic. The politics are expressed in all their seriousness (violence and its real consequences), as well as their ridiculousness (bravado, rules and one-up-manship that borders on the idiotic). The conversations between the characters are laced with irony, hostility and double-speak - Middle Sister is often startled by the actions that take place around her and by the behaviour of others towards her, as though she is at an epicentre of a maelstrom, unable to act, only wishing to remain unnoticed. She is unable to react in any coherent manner, unable to protect herself or others close to her. Anna Burns’ Milkman is unforgettable. With its incredibly powerful narrative style, it will make you laugh out loud, shiver with fear, and strike you with its profundity.   


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