Milkman
January 14, 2019 2:51 PM - by Anna Burns - Subscribe

Winner of the Man Booker Prize “Everything about this novel rings true. . . . Original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique.”―The Guardian In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him―and to...

ToB book club entry for Milkman, Anna Burns' Booker prize winner.

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I'm going to post my take as a first comment.
posted by OHenryPacey (8 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
A young woman lives in fear. Her community, torn by the troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, protects itself by establishing almost ritualistic standards for its members, based on age, affiliations, relationships (real or imagined), and most importantly, gender. To diverge from these standard behaviors, knowingly or not, carries a variety of risks, many of which are life or death. How then can a young girl, known to us as Middle Sister, protect herself, stay sane, and, hopefully, grow up in such a place?
That’s a pretty bleak premise for a novel, but Milkman is anything but bleak. The narrative is presented to us as the inner monologue of a young girl, and yes, it’s got its dark moments. She’s being stalked by prominent member of the IRA, and she’s struggling with how to deal with it, and with the ripples it creates through every aspect of the community she lives in. Her thoughts, however, are delivered to us with such poetry, such love of language, such emotional precision, that it’s hard not to find humor, intelligence and courage in nearly every passage.

Middle Sister’s life is richly peopled with characters, none of whom are named, and most of whom are referred to purely by their relationship to her. Ma and Da, of course, First Sister (the eldest) and her husband First brother -in -law, and so forth down to her younger “wee sisters”. The local eccentrics were the “beyond-the-pales”, the local feminists (all seven of them) were the “issues women” the freedom fighters the “renouncers”. As middle child she has a difficult relationship with most, excepting her favorite:
“Third brother-in-law was not first brother-in-law. He was a year older than me and someone I’d known since childhood: a mad exerciser, a mad street fighter, a basic all-round mad person. I liked him. Other people liked him. Once they got used to him they liked him. Other things about him were that he never gossiped, never came out with lewd remarks or sexual sneers or sneers about anything. Nor did he ask manipulative, nosey questions. Rarely, in fact, did he ask questions. As for his fighting, this man fought men. Never did he fight women. Never did he fight women. Indeed, his mental aberration, as diagnosed by the community, was that he expected women to be doughty, inspirational, even mythical, supernatural figures. We were supposed also to altercate with him, more or less too, to overrule him, which was all very unusual but part of his unshakeable women rules. If a woman wasn’t being mythical and so on, he’d try to nudge things in that direction by himself becoming slightly dictatorial towards her. By this he was discomfited but had faith that once she came to with the help of his improvised despotism, she would remember who she was and indignantly reclaim her something beyond the physical once again. ‘Not particularly balanced then,’ said some men of the area, probably all men of the area. ‘But if he has to have an imbalance,’ said all women of the area, ‘we think it best he proceed in it this way.’ So with his atypical high regard for all things female, he proved himself popular with the females without any awareness he was popular with them – which made him more popular.”

And her maybe-boyfriend:
“This was my ‘almost one year so far maybe-boyfriend’ whom I met up with on Tuesday nights, now and again on a Thursday night, most Friday nights into Saturday, then all Saturday nights into Sunday. Sometimes this seemed steady dating. Other times not at all dating. A few over his way saw us as a proper couple. Most though, saw us as one of those non-couple couples, the type who might meet regularly but who couldn’t be designated a proper pairing for all that.”


Middle Sister’s life is one of repression. She is the middle child, and female to boot. Her older siblings are married, her younger precocious and not yet subject to the expectations of the community. She is keenly aware of how absurd her life is, and her intelligence seems to work against her as she thinks and rethinks every action, every thought, every word and how it relates to the convoluted hierarchy of families, neighborhoods, districts and nations. And yet this shining intelligence is what brings her world to life for us. These inner (and outer) arguments are her one tool to figure out her path to survive her life when so many around her are dying.

There is a breathless fell to the prose, and I found it compelling. I quickly decided to give my inner reading voice an Irish lilt, and despite long chapters made up of sometimes long stretches with no paragraph breaks, there was a flow that makes it very readable and hard to put down. I would say that this book is not for every reader, and for some it may be triggering even though the violence is mostly veiled.

For all that she’s never given a name, Middle Sister is as memorable a voice as I’ve ever read. The only other book from the tourney that I’ve read so far is The Overstory, and I loved it so much that I was hoping it would win (dot, dot dot) until I read Milkman.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:53 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


I just finished Milkman and found it oddly compelling. Middle Sister’s voice is indeed extraordinary and Burns’ being to keep up this bizarro world with its bureaucratic, unspecific language is remarkable.
posted by chavenet at 4:18 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


I love this book so much. I'm underlining something on almost every page.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:50 AM on February 6


Against my expectations, not having names makes it much easier to follow. I don't need to remember if Colin was the third or fourth brother or was he the dead ex-husband or the guy who is flirting with her? What I need to know about them is in the title given to them.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:52 AM on February 6


Pretty happy about today's result, I just loved this book so much. on to round 2
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:12 AM on March 8


Same. Any time the judge said something remotely negative about Milkman I got anxious because I want it to win so badly.

Speaking of negative things about Milkman... one complaint the judge made that I hear a lot is that there's no plot. I feel like I read a different book. There are romances! Poisonings! Bar fights! Car bombs! The way these seem like background to middle sister's thoughts have a way of making these events seem un-plotty, but there's certainly a plot there.
posted by tofu_crouton at 12:17 PM on March 8


Holy cow yes! so many storylines. a coming of age story of MS gaining the confidence to be herself, the on again off again with almost boyfriend, the real milkman and his relationship to all of the women of his generation and her mother in particular. perhaps the sideplots muddied the waters for some, but those were the best parts. the beyond the pales and especially, my absolute favorites, were the "issues women"!
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:55 PM on March 8


This was one of the best books I've read in years. The style transformed something in how I read books as I made my way through it, kind of like Proust. I finished it minutes ago and found it so so compelling. Plain, and through that plainness showing so much character and depth.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 6:27 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]


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