Milkman, by Anna Burns

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘I’m confused,’ he said. ‘Is that passage about the sky? If it is about the sky then why doesn’t the writer just say so? Why is he complicating things with fancy footwork when all he need say is that the sky is blue?’

Winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize, this was my first book read in 2019, and a promising start. I am sad but somehow not surprised to learn that Burns is the first Northern Irish winner of the prize in 50 years.

The novel is very clearly set in North Belfast (I was not surprised to see that Burns grew up in the Ardoyne) during the Troubles, in the late 1970s or early 1980s; the author would have been 18, the age of her narrator, in 1980, the year of the first hunger strike and the Dunmurry train bombing. It’s certainly set before the emergence of Sinn Féin as an overt political force in 1982.

And at the same time, it’s a novel without names – the city is not named, none of the characters are named, no organisation or country or religion is named. Often I like books that are set in well-researched locations, but this authorial tactic actually woke me up to the fact that really when I judge other writers by Irish authenticity (and I’ve got a review coming in a couple of days where I will be very judgey on that score) I’m really judging them about their sharing of my own imagination about my homeland. Similarly, the unnamed characters are if anything easier to visualise; I’ve read plenty of books where the protagonist’s named siblings are far less three-dimensional than ‘oldest sister’ and ‘second sister’ here.

The story is about a local paramilitary leader, nicknamed ‘Milkman’, who takes an interest in the narrator, stalking her and becoming an unwanted but unavoidable presence in her life. In conservative Catholic Belfast, of course, these situations are always the girl’s fault, and the closed mindset of her elders provides no support. You are who you are only because of who you are related to, your own identity doesn’t matter. In a sense this is a story of almost forty years ago in dialogue with the #MeToo movement.

At the same time, our narrator escapes through literature (she becomes notorious for walking down the street reading) and has many hilarious observations to make about the day-to-day craziness of the society she is growing up in (the local poisoner is particularly memorable). I see from reviews of Burns’ first book, No Bones, that she took a very similar starting point and slightly lost the run of herself towards the end. Here, everything is under control.

I had a lot to write about this. Even so, I don’t think it will be one of my own top books of 2019; a bit too downbeat and dense for my tastes. But well worth the read. You can get it here.

1 thought on “Milkman, by Anna Burns

  1. I was asked to take a hymn book to a colleague the other day, and thought you might like to see as you’re interested in languages. Do you know which one this is?


    I was pleased for guessing that Nhialic was God. There are lots of variations in the other hymns, like Nhiallinyde which my colleague tells me is Most Graceful God.

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