By: Anna Burns
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.
Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.
So this book entered my radar when it was long-listed, then short-listed, and then won the Man Booker Prize in 2018. The premise sounded interesting, and from what I read about how people reacted to the book, it sounded like a different experience. So I picked it up late last year but it was prompted higher up my TBR queue after seeing it was long-listed for the Women’s Prize in Fiction this year.
Where to begin with this book? I’m not going to lie, it’s an odd book, kind of off-beat the way the characters’ names are never named, we only know them as “middle sister”, “first brother-in-law”, “Somebody McSomebody”, “Milkman.” It can be a mouthful (try the repetition of “oldest friend from primary school”) but it catches on soon enough and sort of adds a flavour to the storytelling. The narrative itself is almost stream of consciousness, bounding from thought to thought; it drew me in, continued to draw me in even as the storyline would stray further and further into our protagonist’s thoughts.
And yes, the plot did stray at times, which is like life itself, except sometimes she’d be in the middle of a thought process and I’m like “Girl, please, I want to know what happened when you ran into the Milkman again!” And some scenes didn’t interest me compared to others.
Amidst the stream of consciousness and the flowing of thoughts and events relayed to the reader through our protagonist, the book tackles a lot of issues: feminism and that sense of us-versus-them, puritanism and society, love and family and friendship and what it means to be. I felt for middle sister, she was thrust into the centre of gossip with all these assumptions made about her (but omg Milkman was so creepy, I can’t). But her struggles tied in strongly to that of being a young woman growing up in what felt like 1970s Northern Ireland so the climate of the Troubles was very much in my mind as I read this book. The way the themes were interwoven were really interesting and I was quite appreciative of how the story was written in order to convey it.
Overall I enjoyed reading Milkman. It can be quite a dense read because of the interweaving of thoughts and events with memory. It strayed at times, which was frustrating; I was more interested in the initial premise of her odd interactions with Milkman (however skin-crawling it was) because there were just so many motives wrapped up there. I think if you’re looking for a challenge or just something different, this book is worth checking out. I haven’t read any of the other books nominated for the Man Booker in 2018 but I can see why it was chosen.