Milkman - Anna Burns

Review :

One year on from its win and this book's sales and reputation go for strength to strength. Anna Burns gave a moving speech at the recent Booker award dinner for 2019 which I was lucky enough to attend. The 2019 longlist had many strong books but nothing to match the brilliance and distinctiveness of this one.

UPDATED THOUGHTS

One of my top books of 2018 and after a re read (which I enjoyed even more than first time around) likely to be one of my top reads in 2019.

This was also the Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Purely in my view this was always the standout book on the longlist and the best winner for years - however (just as I predicted in my original review) this is not a book for everyone as can be seen in some of the reviews of this book.

I do find something meta-fictional about the fact that a book about a divided community, with the two sides holding entrenched positions, generating a similar reaction among my literary friends - I have visions of the fans of the book manning barricades in its defence, while its detractors chant "No surrender to the Book-r-prize" and "Le ciel est blu"

And I have posted elsewhere - it seems that say 2/3rd of people absolutely love this book and 1 / 3rd simply cannot tolerate it. This is in line with scientific evidence - Wikipedia estimates 35% of the global population are lactose intolerant (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactose...)

OPENING QUOTE

The 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. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, 'knew me to see but not to speak to' and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.

ANNA BURNS AND HER LITERARY DEVELOPMENT

Anna Burns's debut novel - her first No Bones was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002 - 15 years after the author moved from Catholic Belfast to England as a 25 year old in 1987. This is only her third novel (with one novella) since then and the acknowledgements hint at a trying life story. (update: this difficult back story has now been confirmed interviews since the author won the prize).

No Bones covered the story of a young girl growing up in the Troubles in Belfast; Little Constructions - her second novel - an Irish criminal family.

My reviews here:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

In a New Statesman reading and interview at Foyles in the week of the Booker award - an event I was fortunate enough to attend - Anna Burns discussed her three books. My recollections and understanding of what she said was that: her saying that her first book "No Bones" was dealing with her issues as an individual; her second "Little Constructions" with her issues with the family unit; and that finally now in her third book "Milkman" she was able to consider her issues with the society in which she grew up

I think it's because I've resolved something about family issues that I can now do the "bigger" issue - which actually, for me, is the lesser issue.

MILKMAN

This book is set in Belfast in the early 1990s, but a Belfast not named but described with a nomenclature which reminded me of the allegorical approach of a Magnus Mills novel:

At this time, in this place, when it came to the political problems, which included bombs and guns and death and maiming, ordinary people said 'their side did it' or 'our side did it', or 'their religion did it' or 'our religion did it' or 'they did it' or 'we did it', when what was really meant was 'defenders-of-the-state did it' or 'renouncers-of-the-state did it' or 'the state did it'. Now and then we might make an effort and say 'defender' or 'renouncer .. that flag of the country from 'over the water' which was also the same flag of the community from 'over the road'.

The opening paragraph of the novel - at the start of my review - sets out both the style of the novel and its limited storyline.

The book is narrated in a wonderful first-person voice by an unnamed girl, looking back on when she was eighteen years old.

The voice perhaps has something of Lisa McInerney and Eimear McBride (perhaps even Mike Mc Cormack) but with its own distinctive freshness and black humour.

Despite (or perhaps because of) her almost-boyfriend, the narrator has two unwanted admirers:

The milkman - a older man and "renouncer" (IRA) intelligence office who uses his undercover skills to persistently engineer encounters with her, while accumulating and casually revealing his knowledge of every aspect of her life;

Somebody Mc Somebody - the only surviving son of a renouncer family which has been struck by serial tragedy and who has self-delusions that he is a senior renouncer agent.

CHARACTERS

The novel features a wonderful cast of characters, known not by their names but identified with a similar nomenclature to that in the above description of Belfast.

Examples of individual characters include:

maybe-boyfriend (her almost partner - a motor mechanic who hoards car parts and who sets off a chain of events by bringing home the super-charger from a Bentley - a car firmly identified as being from "over the water");

nuclear-boy (Somebody McSomebody's brother - obsessed with the prospect of a Russia-America nuclear war to the bemusement of those around him); chef (her boyfriends best friend, a gay brickie and one time serial-victim convinced he is a top cook);

third brother-in-law (street fighter, sanctifier of women, obsessive runner)

tablets girl, a.k.a. girl who was really a woman (the unhinged district poisoner;)

real milkman.a.k.a. the man who didn't love anybody, (a stern and ascetic "deeder of the goodness", who openly defies the excesses of the enforcers and is an object of lifelong desire for ;)

ma (obsessed with marrying off the narrator, her daughter, to one of "the nice wee boys from the area")

There was ma too, continuing her barrage of how I wouldn't get married, of how I was bringing shame by entering paramilitary groupiedom, of how I was bringing down on myself dark and unruly forces, bad-exampling wee sisters, bringing in God too, as in light and dark and the satanic and the infernal.

Other characters are identified as collectives, for example:

The wee ones (the narrator's hyper-questioning, precociously intelligent younger sisters);

The local paramilitary groupies (who attempt to induct her into their ranks);

The issue women (a group of feminists resented but also protected by the traditional women).

The ex-pious women - a group of ageing religious ladies who rival ma for the attentions of the real milkman

The narrator, in a touch I loved and with which I could hugely empathise, is marked out as different and suspicious by the community, due to her habit of walking while reading:

It's creepy, perverse, obstinately determined,' went on longest friend. . It's the way you do it -reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages . It's disturbing. It's deviant. It's optical illusional. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why -with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together -would anyone want to call attention to themselves here'

The narrator challenges

"Are you saying it's okay for [The Milkman] to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre [walking about] in public'

to be told:

look[ed] at it in its proper surroundings, then Semtex taking precedence as something normal over reading-while-walking -'which nobody but you thinks is normal' -could certainly be construed as the comprehensible interpretation here . So, looked at in those terms, terms of contextual environment, then it is okay for him and it's not okay for you.'

THEMES

The book brilliantly conveys the Troubles and the undercurrent of violence, the tribal suspicions, the oppressive conventions, the inter-community and community-soldier hatreds, and the oppressive gloom that it generates.

Take a statelet immersed . conditioned through years of personal and communal suffering, personal and communal history, to be overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger -well, these people could not, not at the drop of a hat, be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that. As for the environment, that too, would object, backing up the pessimism of its people, which was what happened where I lived where the whole place always seemed to be in the dark. It was as if the electric lights were turned off, always turned off, even though dusk was over so they should have been turned on yet nobody was turning them on and nobody noticed either, they weren't on. All this too, seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality, here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see.

The narrator is both a product of her environment (she regrets that maybe-boyfriend does not have the culturally appropriate level of male-enthusiasm for football) and starting to strain against its restrictions.

In her increasing sense of awareness of the wider-world outside of the narrow confines she is expected to operate in she is aided by maybe-boyfriend who takes her to see a sunset and a French evening-class teacher who, in a funny but also pivotal scene encourages her class to look at the colours of the sky and explore both language and nature, despite their inherited ancestral scepticism.

After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers, centuries and millennia of being one colour officially and three colours unofficially, a colourful sky, just like that, could not be allowed to be.

Teacher started again. This time it was the fugacious (whatever that meant) black appearance of street trees owing to the crepuscular (whatever that meant) quality of the sky behind them, with the others -still in their own struggle -complaining that our town didn't have fugacity, crepuscules or street trees, black or any colour, before being made to look again and conceding that okay, maybe we did have street trees but they must have been put in half an hour earlier as nobody here had noticed them before.

But she is worn down by:

the unwanted attentions of the milkman;

his increasingly explicit threats that maybe-boyfriend will be car-bombed if she does not drop him;

by the neighbourhood gossip, innuendo and questioning which takes her non-existent affair with him as a matter of established fact and starting point for further conjecture;

her increasingly strained relationship with maybe-boyfriend who still lives under the shadow of the Bentley incident

And all this spelled a serious turning bad for us, for me and maybe-boyfriend -in the way that the rumour about me and the milkman in my area was affecting me, and in the way that the rumour about him and the flag in his area was affecting him.

STYLE

This is not a book for all readers - the plot is limited and even within its narrow confines, the author wanders across time meaning the book has only a limited sense of linearity. It is distinctly in my view at the Goldsmith/Republic of Consciousness end of the Booker spectrum (albeit surprisingly not shortlisted for that prize, with two less innovative Booker books making the list); and therefore all the more enjoyable for it.

The style too is not consistent - this is a book which can be at times (but only at times)

Visceral - for example Rachel Cusk like massacre of "our side's dogs by the "over the water" army

Dark - violence and death are an everyday occurrence

Tender - with an unexpected gay relationship and "grey" love affair

Surreal/absurd - almost Magnus Mills style as for example the security forces struggle with the infiltration of a hospital by sexually obsessed ex-pious women

Imaginative and inventive in its use of language - in the style of Eimear McBride

But it was a book that I loved.

CONCLUSION

Overall a bold and innovative choice for which the Booker Judges must be congratulated.

A distinct and darkly humorous novel which serves as a literary reminder of the Troubles - a difficult time in British history, and one which answers its own question:

'You never know,' they said, 'what might be considered the most sought-after paraphernalia of these sadnesses in years to come.'


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