BOOK REVIEW: MILKMAN by ANNA BURNS

Review by James Gault

In recent years, the gleam of glittering prizes has faded for me. I used to rely on them. I always thought an Oscar award-winning film would be well worth watching until they gave the best film prize to that sentimental Hollywood claptrap Titanic. In the past,  I have criticised the Man Booker committees for constantly choosing form over substance, for preferring innovation over entertainment, and for choosing books that were worthy without being engrossing. But, for once, the committee got it right in their choice of the 2018 Man Booker winner.

Milkman is a book that scintillates on every level. It is innovative and insightful. It is witty and woeful at the same time. The characters jump off the page and punch you in the teeth. It combines subtlety with full-on crudeness. Love and violence are skillfully entwined together in its pages. It’s a powerful political statement at the same time as an intimate exposé of deep secret feelings. And, amazingly for someone who revels in rooting out the smallest fault, I found it a book with no flaws.

The story is set in the times of the ‘troubles’ in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland. (The author grew up in Belfast during the 60s and 70s). The young 18-year-old narrator is pestered by the insidious, unwanted attentions of a big wheel among the local republican activists, and has her life (‘way of’ and ‘attitude to’) turned on its head. As events unfold, we the readers are exposed to day-to-day life in this urban battlefield, to the fears, prejudices and social conventions that sustain the whole sorry system.

In style, it is a stream-of-consciousness type narrative, but, as you would expect in a Man Booker winner, the author has found a unique and astounding voice, full of new ideas and techniques. She exploits to the full sentences ending in a long list of similes, repetitive descriptions, circumlocutions of the same meaning, adjectives and nouns that mean more or less the same. But in her hands the reader never tires of these lists, each item adding a new nuance, a deeper meaning, another innuendo of emotion. These lists also imbue the young narrator with a sense of wisdom, with an unexpectedly mature ability for reflection and analysis. 

The writing is also distinctive in the way she avoids the use of names for her characters, replacing them with labels such as ‘wee sisters’, ‘maybe boyfriend’ and ‘third brother-in-law’. This is not just conceit; it constantly reminds the reader of their roles, and it supports the whole atmosphere of secrecy, anonymity, and hidden dangers endemic in Northern Ireland at that time. She uses a similar trick for similar effect with places: for example, ‘over the water’, ‘the usual place’.  

The author achieves a striking effect also in the way she identifies the outsiders, the ‘beyond-the pales’, as individuals while treating the conformists in this social milieu as groups – ‘the pious women’, ‘the renouncers’, ‘the neighbours’ among others. It’s a society where you deviate from the norms at your peril, even if the norms are blatantly wrong.   

In fact, for me the point of this book is its chilling and depressing depiction of what it was like to live in the middle of the conflict between violent war lords and intransigent authorities bent on preserving their own self-interest. Anyone who could in any way contemplate subverting the Good Friday Agreement should read this novel, and note the way this society maintains itself by abhorring the independent thinker and clinging illogically to unchallengeable clichés. Has this changed since?                       

This novel, however, is not just a social and political history of a dark time. It is a story of people, and the stress and strains of those times in that place were perfect for producing a ripe harvest of powerful, disturbed characters for a writer of Anna Burns’ talents. You cannot help but love, hate, criticise, and sympathise with the people who populate these pages.

It seems that I have so far painted a dark, uncompromising picture of this novel, but in spite of the black themes and troubled characters, it is often extremely funny. The need for the characters to conceal the truth, to hide from the obvious, and to pretend that things are not what they really are leads to some hilarious situations, so if you’re a lover of black humour, this is a worthwhile read.

In reviewing this work, I may not be an entirely neutral observer, because of my age and origins. I grew up in a working-class family in the West of Scotland in the 50s and 60s. We lived on the fringes of the society Anna Burns describes. We escaped the excesses of the violence, but we lived with the prejudices: them and us schools, throwing stones at the ‘enemy’, flute bands and orange lodges, no surrenders, ‘what school did you go to’ job interviews, mixed marriages (‘Proddie’ and ‘Fenian’) disapproved by people I had always believed would know better. The novel was a painful reminder of some of the worst aspects of my young life, and also a reminder of how lucky we were that the escalation into terror didn’t make it across the Irish Sea and up the Firth of Clyde. Thank you, Anna Burns, for not allowing me to forget.

A book review can only reflect the reviewer’s reactions to the work, and these are mine. I cannot claim that everyone will find this book as perfect as I did. But if most people did not enjoy and value it, I would be disappointed and surprised.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 James Gault, born in Scotland, has recently retired to SW France after spending ten years in the Czech Republic. There he enjoys the sunshine, writes novels, short stories and English Language textbooks.

He also produces the on-line literary magazine Vox Lit with monthly notes by writers for writers and readers, news, features (short stories, poems and extracts from novels.)

He has written four novels, all available on Amazon as e-books and paperbacks:

Teaching Tania (Young Tania tries to put the world to rights with the help of her English teacher – a comic detective story)

Ogg (Supernatural being tries to teach teenage Antonia how to think rationally as they try to save the world from destruction – comic philosophical thriller)

The Redemption of Anna Petrovna (Young woman in ex-communist country tries to build a career in a totally corrupt society – political psychological thriller.

Best Intelligence –  a detective thriller set in Scotland, France and Spain.

Current work in progress: the sequel to Best Intelligence and a satirical novella on the Trump-Putin relationship.

As well as ELT books and his novels, he has written short stories published in various reviews and magazines. In 2007, he won the writing prize from the British Czech and Slovak Society for his short story ‘Old Honza’s Day Out’.

In his time James has been an IT specialist, a businessman and a teacher as well as a writer, and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. He has worked with and taught English to students of many nationalities. He has an international outlook on life and his writing reflects both this and his other interests.

Apart from writing, his passions are politics, philosophy, film making, computer system development and his grandchildren.

One comment

  1. Enjoyed the review, James. I always check out the Man Booker shortlist because I often enjoy books that stretch the boundaries of a novel in various ways. But I do like substance with my form. and the more black humor the better, so I will definitely check this one out.

    Liked by 1 person

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