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!