None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life
The language of Anna Burns’ Milkman is simply marvellous; beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist. From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world — threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads — while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman, negotiating a way between the demands of family, friends and lovers in an unsettled time. The novel delineates brilliantly the power of gossip and social pressure in a tight-knit community, and shows how both rumour and political loyalties can be put in the service of a relentless campaign of individual sexual harassment.
At turns frightening and inspirational, Milkman is stylistically utterly distinctive. At t the intersection of class, race, gender and sexual violence, it deals with oppression and power with a Beckettian sense of humour, offering a wholly original take on Ireland in the time of the Troubles through the mind of a young girl. Genuinely experimental, its ability to move from the scene of public life into the intimate landscape of the mind, sometimes in a single sentence, is stunning.
It is not a straightforward read. Set in a Troubles-riven Belfast in the Seventies, it’s a high-voltage stream of unhinged, raconteur lyricism that centres on the predatory attentions of the titular Milkman from the point of view of an 18-year-old known only as Middle Sister. But it also offers a sideways — and all the more devastating — account of the psychological legacy of Ireland’s violent 20th-century history. At the same time, it manages to be bleakly funny.
Were this an Edna O’Brien production, the action would mostly likely fit into a 20-page short story... Burns expands this material into a willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel, one that circles and circles its subject matter, like a dog about to sit, while rarely seizing upon any sort of clarity or emotional resonance. I found “Milkman” to be interminable, and would not recommend it to anyone I liked...When she wants to be, Burns is bleakly funny. The narrator reads her much-younger siblings “The Exorcist” and “Doctor Faustus” before bed. One character goes to the Middle East to get a bit of peace...
...It’s a brilliant rhetorical balancing act, and the narrator can be very funny as she sets about explaining her difficulties with the milkman, starting with who he is... So begins a sequence of blackly comic set-pieces and explanatory digressions that soon take a turn towards nightmarish personal crisis... What’s extraordinary about all this, though easy to overlook on a first reading, at least until the final stretch, is the density and tightness of the plotting behind the narrator’s apparently rambling performance. The whole thing could be transposed into a more conventional idiom, with proper names and in the third person, say, without rearranging the scene-by-scene construction. What’s more, the comic unfolding of the plot runs counter to the narrator’s pinched sense of what can and can’t be said and done in her neighbourhood, and, after a chilling final encounter with the milkman, there’s a darkly happy ending... But as a reader you feel you’ve earned the novel’s more optimistic resolution, and that Burns, with her wild sentences and her immense writerly discipline, has too.
Milkman is a voice novel. The narrator controls her words if nothing else and they are comically literate, plethoric, even gabby, for one so powerless. That’s not just an Irish but specifically a Beckettian dynamic — but Burns says she hadn’t read Beckett until after writing Milkman, then finding him “wonderful and heartbreaking”. The difference between them is the plight Beckett presents is existential and universal whereas, for all the avoidance of names, Milkman remains local, specific to the Belfast that evidently traumatised Burns so much. Milkman is a fine and remarkably original literary achievement, thoroughly deserving to win prizes. But how many who buy it will read all the way through? You’re soon gasping for respite. But there’s little.
THE Man Booker judges got it absolutely right...compulsive, sinister and darkly witty, not to mention timely in its examination of sexual violence and the latent toxicity of Irish border politics, Milkman is brilliant, arguably the best Booker winner in years.
Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, which won the Man Booker prize this week, is a tough read... The book has its advocates (some of them passionate) — and it does have its merits. Burns does a good job of conjuring up an atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia, and there are nice touches of characterisation... But Milkman is a difficult book — mainly because of its wilfully inelegant prose style. Prepare for repetition, circumlocution and paragraphs stretching over pages (plus the fact that none of the characters has a name)... The novel has been called “experimental”, but Burns’s laboured stream-of-consciousness prose doesn’t depart radically from the century-old tradition of literary modernism. What it does do is mark the book out as “literary”... Appiah also said that the book is “challenging, but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.” Well, perhaps — but the view from the top of Mount Milkman is pretty cloudy.
It is an eccentric and oddly beguiling novel that centres on an unnamed girl... who has been sexually pestered by the unpleasant milkman of the title – not a real milkman, but a local paramilitary with a nickname. Against the odds it is a comedy, of sorts, and what makes it memorable is the funny, alienated, common-sensical voice of middle sister, who refuses to join in the madness and narrates the book like a long, jaundiced shaggy-dog story.
In a recent interview, Anna Burns described the distance — both temporal and physical — that enabled her to write about her childhood in a Catholic district of Belfast during the Troubles. With this cool detachment, she has shone a spotlight on this most divisive period in two novels — No Bones, shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002, and now Milkman, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize...Burns gradually portrays the cloaked coping mechanisms adopted by this war-torn cast...Some of the most moving sections involve the narrator’s mother.
Milkman (which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize) is a book that demands vigilance. It is quietly alarming – with over 300 pages of text almost unbroken by chapters, line breaks or dialogue – and yet fuels its wordiness, its own nervous talk. Its prose builds with pressure, swaying with concealed turbulence. It is tiring, exhausting even, as it circles and pliés, settling on nothing...Anna Burns is masterly in her creation of a reading experience that so closely simulates the plight of its protagonist,
Milkman is both universal and a distinctly Irish novel, a dark satire with a twist of Beckett... While Milkman is a work of timely universality, it is also a distinctly Irish novel, a darkly mirthful satire with a twist of Beckettian melancholy and an anarchic touch of Swift... As with every character in the novel, which crackles with intellectual verve and droll verbosity, the narrator is nameless, or rather goes by a soubriquet, depending on who she is with: “middle daughter”, “maybe-girlfriend”, “longest friend”...
Milkman is viciously funny. Its jokes come out askew, as does its plot. We know that Milkman himself will die from the very first page, just as we know that McSomebody will assault the narrator in the ladies' room. But one is the plot, and one is a passing thing; Burns likes the peculiarities of the latter. Eventually we reach Milkman's shooting, and it's barely worth a shrug. But when McSomebody gets dragged away and kicked half to death by supportive women – now that, by contrast, is a lovely surprise.
But for all the comparisons, Milkman has its own energy, its own voice. Although the novel is set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, it prompts thoughts of other regimes and their impact: Stalinist Russia, the Taliban. Medieval witchhunts, the Skripal poisoning and the #MeToo movement also sprang to mind while reading it. Despite the surreality, everything about this novel rings true.
From the outset, Milkman is delivered in a breathless, hectic, glorious torrent. The pace doesn't let up for a single moment. It doesn't make for an easy, nor an immediately absorbing read. Anyone expecting accessible characters or a clear-cut, neatly mapped out plot will be left wanting. ... Yet those who stick with Ann Burns' hectic, stream-of-consciousness writing, not dissimilar to that of Eimear McBride or Flann O'Brien, are more than rewarded.
Milkman is both a story of Belfast and its particular sins but it is also a story of anywhere. It reminded me of China Mieville’s The City and the City where identity, names and seeing the Other are contentious acts. Milkman shares this level of ambition; it is an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars.