At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have put up with, anybody and everybody coming near.
One of the most frequent words that popped up while I was scanning through reviews of Anna Burns’s Milkman is “challenging.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Man Booker Chair of the judges too had admitted that Milkman “is not a light read” (all the while claiming it to be an easier read compared to articles on philosophy!) Thus, before I move further with my review, I must admit that I agree with this ‘widespread’ assessment 100%. Milkman got 4-stars from me, but if you read this when you are not in the right head-space, I fear its writing with long-winding paragraphs, and the narrator who loves to elaborate even the simplest of things could make you want to pull your hair out of frustration!
So what makes reading Milkman worth your time? I feel like if you can get behind this novel’s experimental writing style, it offers a rewarding reading experience – I loved every second I spent inside the narrator’s head! Milkman‘s protagonist is an unnamed eighteen-year-old living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. She is the middle sister in her family and has been in a maybe-relationship with her Maybe-Boyfriend for over a year, although she has not introduced him to her Ma, a pious woman in the community, as she is afraid Ma will bombard them with questions of marriage and future babies. In the middle sister’s small, closed community where everyone knows each other’s business keeping secrets is not an easy task. But so far the narrator (thinks she) has managed to keep a low profile and her maybe-relationship hidden by burying her head in nineteenth-century literature, without paying any attention to the growing fear and paranoia around her, even though it all changes when Milkman begins paying attention to her.
Milkman stalking the narrator is not the Real Milkman who would have been the right-spouse for Ma – but a forty-something married paramilitary officer. Because of Milkman’s position, the news of their (non-existent) “affair” spread like wildfire in the narrator’s neighborhood, and it is when the narrator realizes that her refusal to give heed to the ongoing political turmoil, combined with her reading-and-walking habit had marked her “beyond-the-pale” – an outcast in the community only a bit better than the “way, way beyond-the-pale” feminists – making her a vulnerable target. Still, the narrator believes keeping mum is the best course of action to make these ridiculous accusations go away until the narrator’s Longest Friend points out “what you don’t offer – especially in volatile times – people will make up for themselves” in their community.
In his review for the New York Times, Dwight Garner calls Milkman “interminable,” and writes “were this an Edna O’Brien production, the action would most likely fit into a 20-page short story.” He is right in the sense that nothing much happens here in terms of the plot. But a 20-page short story would not have given much space for the narrator’s stream of consciousness that conveys the horrifying nature of her helpless position. It is what makes Milkman visceral while giving readers an insight into the ramifications of the narrator’s actions as well as inactions. So personally, there’s not a single thing I would have changed about this Man Booker Winner! 🙂
Note: Many thanks to Graywolf Press for sending me a review copy of Milkman.