In 2018 Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize. For those unfamiliar, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a yearly literary award for the best original novel written in the English. It’s a big deal. Up until 2014 only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, and South African citizens were eligible. Then, after a divisive decision, the award opened up to any English-language novel. To be long-listed is a huge deal; to be short-listed is an even bigger one. Winning, and being the first person in your respected country to do so is something that deserves a nod of respect from everyone both inside and outside of the literary world.
Milkman, Burns’s award winning novel, takes place in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The story follows middle-sister, a young woman trying to navigate her turbulent surroundings while remaining under the radar, playing down her relationship with maybe-boyfriend, and though it’s considered odd behavior, reading-while-walking.
“Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.”
When a paramilitary individual referred to as milkman takes an interest in middle-sister, gossip and hearsay combat silence and reservation, and middle-sister finds herself in an unwanted spot. As he stalks and talks his way into her world, makes her believe he’ll murder maybe-boyfriend, middle-sister’s world starts to crack.
The novel is told through middle-sister’s perspective that often times borders stream of consciousness. Burns’s use of language and prose is remarkable. While I’ll confess, Milkman isn’t the easiest read, it is beyond rewarding.
“At first the explosion had puzzled everybody. What was the point? There was no point. Why plant a bomb, said all the parties, in a dead, creepy, grey place that everybody knew was a dead, creepy, grey place and about which nobody would care anyway if one day it was blown to kingdom come? The media suggested an accidental bomb, a premature bomb, perhaps a renouncer-of-the-state bomb in transit for the nearby police barracks; or maybe a defender-of-the-state bomb, intended for one of the opposite religion’s segregated drinking establishments situated not far from the barracks but going the other way.”
As in the example above, her narrative often uses repeated words or sections of sentences in close proximity to one another. However, surprisingly, this never detracted from the flow of the story. If anything it added to it. Take the passage above: the repetition of “… a dead, creepy, grey place that everybody knew was a dead, creepy, grey place…” hammers in the setting and location in a way that shows how oppressively awful the atmosphere around middle-sister really is.
While the pacing was executed well, and I had no trouble staying engaged with the novel, there were a few points, specifically surrounding middle-sister’s relationship with her mother, which I thought could have moved slightly faster. While a criticism, not one that takes away from the story in a large enough way for it to affect my rating of it.
Something else I’d like to mention is the timeliness of this novel. I understand that it’s a slightly historical novel. While it never comes right out and says it, the general understanding is that it takes place in Northern Ireland in the early nineteen-seventies. So figure almost fifty years ago. That’s nearing half of a century.
“…If I’d said, ‘He offered me a lift as I was walking along the interface road reading Ivanhoe,’ [response from friends or family] it would have been, ‘Why were you walking along that dangerous interface road and why were you reading Ivanhoe?’ If I’d said, ‘I was running in the parks & reservoirs and he appeared also running in the parks & reservoirs,’ it would have been, ‘What were you doing, running in such a dangerous, questionable place and were you doing choosing to run?’
Sound familiar? Ask anyone who’s ever been stalked or a victim of sexual harassment or assault.
“Males and mental hospitals went together far less than females and mental hospitals went together. In a man’s case, this equaled a gender falling-down in pursuance of his duties, totaling a failure above all to keep face.”
Little bit of stigma perhaps?
I highlight these two quotes (and there are many more throughout the novel that would fit) in order to raise a point: both of these negative things—victim blaming/mental health stigma—still exist and are prevalent in society, more so since the spark of the #MeToo movement. But will things get better? Have they gotten better? Or, as a collective human race do we really not grow and develop as much as we’d like to think?
Anyone can look at any news outlet and see alarming stories about white-nationalism, far-right politicians, and horrendous behavior across the globe when it comes to treatment of marginalized communities. As an American, I was taught in high school that a collected number of countries fought, destroyed, and eradicated Nazism. Well, fuck me if I don’t turn on the news and see rallies and speeches, promoting this behavior. Here’s a hint: just because you put the word ‘neo’ in front of it, doesn’t make you any less of a piece of garbage.
But I digress. A train of thought sparked by a piece of literature—seems like Milkman has done its job on all fronts. As a reader it was beyond enjoyable. As a person, it impacted me, as good books are meant to do. It raised the question as to whether timeliness in novels means they (the work themselves) are fitting into our narrative, or has our narrative not really changed? Don’t get me wrong, there have been remarkable advances in social justice and other fronts, but we still have a long way to go. But novels like Milkman, not only provide a tense, suspenseful narrative, but highlight the conflicts in our society and in ourselves.
Bravo Anna Burns. You deserve every reward this book gets.