Milkman, by Anna Burns

Milkman won last year’s Man Booker prize. I’ve been reading it on and off for a while. Not because I didn’t like it, but its long sentences and paragraphs and stream-of-consciousness, tangential structure were too challenging when, say, I’d been reading student papers much of the day. Now I’ve finished it and I loved it, and I won’t have time to do it justice but wanted to get down something of my love before the next set of papers to grade comes in.

Janine’s Goodreads review captures what I loved about the book. You could just go there. But I’ll add some thoughts of my own.

This book is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, probably in Belfast, but the setting is never named, just evoked with phrases like “the great Seventies hatred,” “the country over the water,” and “renouncers-of-the-state.” The characters are not named either: our narrator is “middle sister,” her siblings “first sister,” “wee sisters,” etc., her boyfriend “maybe-boyfriend.” I can see why this approach annoyed some readers. For me it meant that the story both depicted a specific time and place and felt universal–this could happen anytime, anywhere.

At the center of the book is the threat posed to the narrator by Milkman, a big deal paramilitary “renouncer,” a married man much older than she is (she’s 18, he’s in his 40s), who starts following her around and expressing interest in her. He knows her routines. He knows about maybe-boyfriend and indirectly threatens to harm him. Though the narrator wants nothing to do with Milkman, soon the whole area is gossiping about how she’s his mistress and people start to treat her differently. The general atmosphere of threat that is part of everyone’s life becomes specific and intimate in hers. She has no idea of how to escape Milkman’s intentions, or even that she could name them as abusive–after all, he never touches her, so it doesn’t “count.”

Burns’ style reflects and perhaps imposes on the reader this all-encompassing menace. Her paragraphs are long. Her sentences often are too. Passages of dialogue aren’t broken out into separate paragraphs for each speaker. The narrator is always wandering off into a maze of tangents. A chapter starts with a framing time anchor, but then jumps back into a memory, or something that happened earlier that day. Soon you’ve forgotten when we “really” are, until suddenly we return to the narrative present: oh yes, she’s walking home French class, still, 30 pages later.

You can feel bewildered and lost in this maze (though I was never bored by the sidetracks). Are we actually going anywhere? Will we ever get home from French, even? This reflects the narrator’s own rather aimless life. Doing anything is a risk: you might make a mistake. Her inability to commit to maybe-boyfriend is one example of this. She can’t, perhaps, get straight to the point. There may not be a point she wants to go to, in her world.

Hers is a world where you’re always under surveillance–running in the park, she hears cameras clicking in the bushes–but don’t want to be noticed. Being seen by Milkman, or by the police, or the soldiers from over-the-water is threatening. Like everyone else, she checks the phone for bugs, even though she doesn’t know what she’s looking for. I thought the wall of text was also a way of hiding, or of not looking directly at the truth, just like the narrator’s habit of walking around with her nose in an eighteenth or nineteenth century novel. Witnessing is as much a risk as being seen. Middle sister isn’t in denial, but looking directly at her world is painful: “The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb, but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, be present, adult.”

All this makes Milkman sound difficult and dark, and in some ways it is, but there’s also a strong vein of humor and tremendous verve and playfulness in Burns’ language. Here, for instance, the narrator ponders maybe-boyfriend’s suggestion that they move in together in the “red-light” street, where unmarried or mixed-religion couples live. The street has recently been on the news because “normal people, meaning married couples, were moving out”

Some weren’t against the red-light aspect, they said. It was just they didn’t want to hurt older relatives’ feelings, such as those of their parents, their grandparents, their deceased forebears, their long-deceased fragile ancestors possibly set in ways easily to be affronted, especially by what the tenor of the media was calling ‘depravity, decadence, dissemination of pessimism, outrages to propriety and illicit immoral affairs.’

There’s a sentence that’s long and difficult and also a lot of fun.

Earlier I wrote a post on my dithering over whether to read this in paper or ebook. Ebook turned out to work fine for the wall of text, but I did wonder whether in paper–or perhaps if I read the book all in one go–I’d have been better able to map Burns’ digressions. I have a feeling there are specific reasons why the narrator goes on specific tangents from a particular starting point, but I lost track of them. Milkman would repay re-reading.

Finally, I’m not sure what to make of the last chapter. There’s a gun in the first line: “The same 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.” Burns doesn’t quite follow Chekhov’s rule, but this moment does come back. Not where I expected, though–it isn’t the story’s climax. Or if it is, there’s a long anti-climax. The ending brings some lightening of the mood and some hope, but I wasn’t sure how it fit in. I hope others who have read this will have a spoilery discussion of this in the comments!



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18 Responses to Milkman, by Anna Burns

  1. Sunita says:

    Wonderful discussion, Liz, and I know what you mean about feeling as if you’re not doing justice to it. I felt the same way, because there’s so much depth and so many things to talk about that you inevitably leave things out. But you give the flavor of the book really well.

    I was a bit taken aback by the last section too, but on reflection I thought it worked really well. Some of the twists were quite surprising but made sense in retrospect, and the generally positive mood felt as if Burns was saying that life does go on, and people do find their way and reach equilibria in their lives. It continues the juxtaposition of serious and humorous, awful and not-awful, but landing on the not-awful side. Which runs counter to what we often find in litfic, and what the stereotype is. So I liked that a lot.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I certainly enjoyed it, but wondered it was a weakness in the patterning, because in some ways the tension just petered out at the end.

      On the other hand, it suggests that a main pointing a gun at you and calling you a cunt—which is what I assume “cat” was veiling—is NOT actually the climax of a woman’s story. It’s interesting how much “sisterhood” of various kinds, even if still revolving around the mother’s feelings for real milkman, is a focus at the end. It’s also clearly a retrospective narration, and the Troubles did end. So the hopeful ending seems warranted in that sense too. As I was reading I felt “what is going on here, why is it taking this turn?” But now I’m talking myself into thinking it’s the right ending.

      • Sunita says:

        Well, I think you’re right about the structural aspect. The story went on after what seemed to be the ending. Some writers might have done it as an epilogue, perhaps? But I don’t know how common those are in contemporary literary fiction; I just read one, but I don’t think I come across them that often.

        There’s a famous quote from somewhere about Beethoven’s 5th, that he knew how to start the symphony but he couldn’t decide on an ending, so he tried several. 😉

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    I loved the ending. I agree with everything Sunita said about it. Also, the sense of the return to normalcy was so interesting because while the equilibrium was reestablished, it was still a dangerous and in some ways abnormal (or what we in the west think of as abnormal) situation.

    And while on the one hand it was a big relief and a refreshingly happy ending (and it suited the somewhat comical tone), there was still some disturbance beneath it, because the return to equilibirum in no way altered by what the narrator had lived through. She had been through this disturbing experience, but no one else was disturbed. Third brother-in-law and Middle Sister went running together, but he still wouldn’t have seen what the Milkman did to her as abuse.

    One of the images I most loved that I think may have come up toward the novel was of Wee Sisters and the other little girls dancing outside when the International Couple was on television. It brought to mind my childhood in 1970s Israel, when we used to play hide-and-seek in air raid shelters or make campfires and sit around them playing Truth or Dare or even crawl on the ground like soldiers in the Scouts. This sense that life goes on and that it can be joyous and playful even in the midst of violent conflict, for children especially, was so beautifully captured.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The girls were interesting. Because they wanted to dress up and dance while the boys were playing war games. It made me think of the issue women, too. There is quite a bit of subtle female resistance to the status quo, although I am not saying women aren’t also part of it.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Yes, the issue women were a great touch too. I loved the French teacher as well. And the whole scene at the hospital around real milkman! Also the way they stood up for him when he was taken to the kangaroo court. I loved the stubbornness to many of the female chraracters that kept them from buckling to the men and their investment in the conflict. Though as you say, the women were invested in it too.

        With regard to wee sisters and the other girls, I did not see that so much as resistance but more as playfulness and resilience. Have you ever seen John Boorman’s film Hope and Glory? It is based on his childhood in England during the World War II blitz. It just rings so true to the irrepresiblity of children even in the midst of war. That was what the girls reminded me of most.

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        I found this aspect really interesting too: there are so many instances in which it turns out the women put up some form of effective resistance to the absolutism around them — though as you say, they also clearly take sides and enforce loyalty to them in other contexts. There was something touching about her ma’s unhappy contemplation of her aging body near the end, though I wasn’t really sure what to connect that to.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Ma’s maybe-romance felt disconnected to me, too. But thinking about it now I would say it is about wasted time—marrying the wrong person, being stuck, afraid to be with someone you might really love, of stepping out of line and being happy. I think her feelings about her body are connected to a general sense of loss, maybe. The way she talks about it it’s like it happened without her noticing, just as so many characters try not to see things, because noticing is dangerous.

          And also it is so ordinary, really, for a woman to criticize her body in those terms. I do think the ending is about hope for a return of ordinary, imperfect life.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          I connected her thoughts about her body to the way she had exhorted the narrator to get married and have babies. On the one hand we have this piety and pressure to have children, which she herself must have faced at one point in her life, and had chosen for herself, then exerted on her daughters. On the other hand we have her girlish need to attract the object of her love, which was at odds with her earlier demeanor, and certainly at odds with the way the narrator had previously viewed her. The contradiction made Ma’s character richer. All those exhortations of hers that the narrator needed a break from—Ma needed a break from them, too.

          It’s not unlike the women’s other rebellions against the social pressures they faced, except that in this case, the rebellion took place within Ma.

  3. BookerTalk says:

    Started reading this last night so I’ll call me back to your review when I’ve finished it. That way I won’t get influenced.

  4. Sunita says:

    There’s a fantastic review of this and Burns’ earlier novels in the latest issue of the NYRB. I get my copy from the library so I don’t know if it’s behind the paywall, but if you can access it, it’s a must-read.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I could only read the first few paragraphs online but will definitely track down the rest. The idea of “withholding vantage points” is really interesting.

  5. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Now that I’ve read it for myself I could come back and read your post and the discussion without fear of spoilers! I agree too about the petering out of tension at the end. I was actually wondering if there would be some kind of twist involving third brother-in-law: I guess I’ve read too many thrillers and spy novels! I really like your point about surveillance and the novel’s own form as a kind of resistance to it. I do think reading it on paper might have been helpful: at least, I have much more trouble ‘flipping back pages’ on an ebook to double-check where I’ve been, and doing that did sometimes help me get back on track with the digressions.

    • Janine Ballard says:

      It seems I am alone in my love for that ending. I think I needed that release from tension too much to mind it!

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Oh, I enjoyed it! I do think it breaks/challenges a lot of conventions about narrative arcs though. Perhaps intentionally. It gets more interesting the more I think about it.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          I loved the last scene with them jumping over the hedge. Also her inhalation and exhalation of the early evening light seems to hearken to her French class sunset. There is a lot of hopefulness in that closing.

          I think perhaps it breaks and challenges the conventions of 21st century literary fiction more so than the conventions of other kinds of novels.

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        I didn’t dislike it either, but your comments on it have helped me see it better. I agree, now that you’ve pointed it out, that jumping over the hedge is one of a few signs of greater energy and hope as the novel ends.

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