Have you ever received a book that you instantly knew you couldn’t wait to read? Perhaps it was due to a glorious front cover, a tantalising blurb or a raving review?
Well recently, I was most fortunate to receive such an book, for I was gifted the most sought after and 2018’s prestigious Man Booker Prize Winner, Milkman by Anna Burns.
However it also became my most challenging read since Hausfrau. Later on, I’ll tell you why.
‘MILKMAN’, BY ANNA BURNS
A stunning front cover of a glorious pink, orange and peach sunset was a feast for the eyes as I carefully unwrapped my gift. As an absolute sunset fanatic, I instantly fell in love with it. The blurb however, gave very little away.
“In this unnamed city, to be interesting is to be dangerous.”
I quickly learnt that this story was going to be different. Having heard the hype but not read any previous reviews, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However from the clues in the blurb, it was clear to me that this book had no character names, and the city it was set in had none either. How unusual, I thought.
So a short while ago, whilst on lunch at work, I turned to page 1.
“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”
‘Wow’. I thought, ‘This is going to be a difficult read’.
After one chapter incorporating 10 pages, I had been introduced to 6 characters and a city, none of which had a name.
What I noted is that no characters really have a description, I couldn’t tell you what colour hair they had, how they dressed or their mannerisms.
The pace of the book is fast and the story all over the place. It is both mesmerising and difficult to keep up with. Stories about other people encircle one another, cross paths and shoot off in different directions. I knew at this point that this really wasn’t going to be a relaxing lunch time read, and in the sake of not being distracted so as to remain in the narrative, I was probably best continuing to read this at home.
It is difficult to describe exactly to you the start of the story, because of the nature of how it is written.
We are introduced to the main characters within the protagonist (an 18 year old female)’s life. This is her family, consisting of her Mum (‘ma’), elder sisters and associated brother in laws, ‘wee sisters’ and ‘maybe-boyfriend’.
The story is set in the 70s in the time of the troubles in Northern Ireland, although this is never explicitly said, and to be honest it could be set anywhere where civil war exists.
So as we meander through the book, written both with sharp intellect, wit and dark humour, we become more and more aware of the character of ‘Milkman’, the namesake of the book title.
Milkman is a paramilitary, a ‘renouncer’ and a feared man within the tight knit community, with strong power over it and whom happens to be stalking our storyteller.
The protagonist also has a boyfriend, well, almost; ‘Maybe Boyfriend’, whom she has been dating for a year yet they haven’t quite committed to one another yet.
Within her family there are only brother in laws for all her brothers are dead from the political activities or have moved away. Her ‘Wee Sisters’ are incredibly bright for young children, interested in all kinds of complex adult conversations you wouldn’t expect children under 10 to be having.
However, the main character within the book in my opinion is the community. We learn that the community is one of gossip and ‘Chinese whispers’, one of judgement and ‘right and wrong’. There are names for example that you cannot call a newborn baby, for they are ‘over the road’ or ‘over the water’ names. Religion and Political viewpoints and marital status and birth names and favourite newspapers and motor vehicle choice all shape a person according to the community.
So do an individual’s activities. One of the worst things to be in the community is to be deemed ‘beyond the pale’. That is to you and me, ‘odd’.
There are many in the community who hold such a title, such as the interesting character ‘Tablets Girl’, a girl who is not a girl but who is actually a woman, who has a habit of trying to poison everybody. Our character however, is seen as ‘beyond the pale’ for her obsession with reading whilst walking.
You heard it dear readers, this whole natural activity to you and I was deemed an outrage. Namely because the girl does not have her wits about her when doing so, she has no appreciation for the danger around her at any time. Watching Sunsets is also deemed a ‘beyond the pale’ activity, and basically anything enjoyable. Safe to say I’d be ousted by the community!
Not only that, but the rumours of Milkman began to circulate and soon her deeply pious mother picks up this news and accuses her of taking up with an older and dangerous man. Frustratingly as a reader, the narrator refuses to defend herself, claiming her mother wouldn’t listen anyway.
The community is one of self policing and judgement, make-shift courts are held in sheds and garages, punishing those who are deemed to need it. New laws and regulations are enforced, and neighbours play the roles of medics, nurses and doctors. For no-one is to contact the actual police, or ask for help from any state or state connection, including attending a hospital. A person on their deathbed is not to contact anyone except their neighbour; it is better to be dead than to trust the state.
So it’s a witch hunting style community, gossip is rife and you can’t actually engage in anything you may enjoy. The narrator cannot also do anything about the stalking, for if she were to report ‘Milkman’, due to the nature of the community, people would die.
“‘Life here..simply has to be lived and died in extremes”
For the first three chapters, I honestly felt that this was the most depressing and difficult book I’ve probably ever read.
I felt anxiety whilst reading it, not only because of the deaths, stalking, psycho–political atmosphere and generally depressing life of the community I was encountering, but mainly because of the way the book is written. It’s like being stuck inside a head where a wheel is constantly spinning.
Have you ever encountered a person who cannot quite tell you a story in a direct fashion? Here we phrase this ‘going around the houses’.. well here I felt that Burns was going down the path, around the park, along the seafront and back again.
The fact that the story had no names became increasingly difficult to follow, trying to remember who was whom. The fact also that each chapter was 50-70 pages long after chapter one, with very little page breaks or new paragraphs meant it was so frustrating if you tried to put it down and pick it back up again. It’s the first book where I’ve had to proactively make notes as I read to ensure that I completely followed the storyline.
I read a quote somewhere that Anna Burns had said that she had tried the book with names, and it just ‘wasn’t the same book’.
On top of all of this, the language the women use in their households is downright bizarre. The narrator reads 17-18th century literature, and the language used amongst her and her family members seems to be a little borrowed from this era. It is unnecessarily complex, unnatural and peculiar. Even with my fairly advanced vocabulary, I had to look up a lot of words.
However, I’ve pleased to say that I persevered; stubbornness and willpower got me somewhere. From Chapter 4 onwards, I loved it.
Chapter 4-7 for me (the last half of the book) was where I really began to feel that the book changed it’s energy. It was when it ‘woke up’ in my opinion.
Feminist issues came to the forefront, and women were proven to be stronger as a group in the community than men with guns. As a female reader, I found this empowering and I felt passionate to learn more about these fearless women talking down the tough men.
We learn also the truth about the lives of ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and Milkman, safe to say I was expecting neither storyline!!
The religiously devout god-fearing Mother also finds a new lease of life and becomes a much warmer, relatable and likeable character. The story didn’t go where I expected it to go, which is an absolute bonus in my book. Often when you’ve read a lot of books, it’s easy to pick up the breadcrumbs with what might happen, but with this it didn’t end anywhere near where I thought it would.
In terms of character development, I didn’t think Somebody McSomebody really deserved the opening line as their involvement in the story was in peaks and troughs, but I absolutely loved the ‘wee sisters’. Their energy, intelligence and enthusiasm throughout the story brought strength and life to parts of the story that were dull and lifeless, much like the narrator at a lot of points in time.
It was clear to me due to the things that these sisters discussed, that Anna Burns must be a highly intelligent woman, for the wide range and highly intellectucal topics she created for them to engage in, I wouldn’t have dreamt of including!
CANT PUT IT DOWN RATING: 2.5/5
Safe to say that this book has had mixed reviews, and I can understand why. It’s a real struggle to read, it’s not enjoyable in the first half at least in my opinion (hence a 2.5 rating), and I’ve heard that many people have given up around page 60 (half way through chapter 2).
The language is difficult, the story telling unnecessarily digressive, and it’s difficult to keep up with character backstories because you have no name to assign the with. It’s very anti-human and not our typical story telling.
I felt like it was reading someone’s journal without knowing what date or year it was written. I had no sense of time or of how long we had been involved in the story line.
However if you can see your way through to Chapter 4, then I urge you to endure it. If you are interested in feminist views or want to see an alternative viewpoint of the troubles in Northern Ireland in the 70s, it’s worth persevering. I didn’t really know anything about it or possibly therefore how it felt to live during this time, but I feel as though I’ve had a very odd education.
If you’d like a copy, you can pick yours up from Amazon for £5.99 , just click the image below*
*As an amazon affiliate I may benefit from purchases with no cost to my readers.
Would I recommend it to others? Hmm, perhaps not. I’m glad I’ve read it, but it’s not a relaxing book and it’s an anxiety breeding read. It took me 2.5 weeks to read cover to cover, and about 1.5 weeks was just trying to get to Chapter 4.
I certainly would not have awarded it the Man Booker Prize. I can understand from a literature perspective that it may sing to the highly educated literature crowd, but for your standard reader, mum, friend?
WASHED DOWN WITH:
This month I’ve been on the hunt for a tea I can really curl up with, but as my local loose leaf tea shop closed last month (mega sobs), I’ve been struggling to find a new blend I really like. I’m open to any recommendations of tea you can find in the UK, so get in touch with yours below!
I have therefore been drinking Yorkshire Tea in abundance. If you haven’t tried Yorkshire Tea, then you really should! It’s a strong, warming and satisfying golden Tea that really packs a punch! You can find it in most supermarkets, in both small boxes and large.
Reader Question : What book have you read that you really struggled to read? Did you finish it or did it land on your ‘DNF’ Pile? Book Chat in the comments is officially open!!
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Until the next Chapter,