Milkman by Anna Burns

November 14, 2020

Milkman was one of the more interesting books I've read this year in terms of its style of story-telling. I haven't gone online to read any other reviews, but I can already tell reviews are likely to be heavily mixed, with some praising the loose "stream of conciousness" writing while others will harp on how meaninglessly difficult the writing makes for someone to actually read and understand the plot.

So Milkman is about the Irish Troubles. Frankly, I'm not much of a history buff, and I knew next to nothing about this period of time until I read the Wikipedia page. However, while the environment and setting clearly affect the story to some extent, the book was ultimately not focused on the Troubles. Instead, the book was much more about its unique narration style and, content-wise, about sexual predation and gender politics.

One way this happens is through the narrator's deliberate avoidance of names. She doesn't refer to anyone by their proper names, instead calling them things like "second sister", "maybe-boyfriend", "Somebody McSomebody", and "the man who didn't love anybody" who also happens to be "the real milkman". This extends to the country, religions, city- pretty much everything. Instead we have the "country over the water", and the "defenders" and "renouncers" of state. Again, knowing that it's set during the Irish Troubles makes filling in the knowledge gaps more or less simple but it furthers the idea that the specifics of the setting aren't as important to the story as it may appear.

Coupled with the narrator's winding and often circuitous way of story-telling, it seems at times that the book is meant to be difficult to read. It's not exactly one that the reader can just sit back and relax to. The entire book feels like one long thought that goes on and on and on and on. It requires a certain amount of focus just to be able to keep track of all the characters, scenes, and ideas Burns throws in quick succession nearly every page. Regardless, I personally found this writing to be captivating, perhaps because - unlike others I've read - the stream of the conciousness resembled very closely to the way the thoughts in my own mind pass. Burns moves seamlessly between topics, going from the milkman to the limitations of the narrator's maybe-relationship and then somehow to spying, undercover squads hiding out in the downtown bars. Additionally, Burn's dry wit also cuts through to provide much appreciated humour at times, with lines like:

"I didn't know what ma meant by my knowledge of the world. My knowledge of the world consisted of fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell, which didn't lend itself to detail, the detail really being those words themselves."

I also found the way the narrator's story was being commandeered by the people around her to be particularly interesting. There's a scene where her mother is demanding to know the truth: has she been seeing the milkman like everyone says? The narrator says the truth - she hasn't - but is immediately rejected. Despite her fear of the milkman and attempts at avoiding him, it is clear that she doesn't have much of her own agency. She is at the mercy of the milkman and she even struggles with being able to identify him as a proper threat as she mentions multiple times that because he has not actually physically touched her, there can be considered no attack. This ties in nicely with an earlier scene in the book where the narrator mentions a group of "issue women", essentially early feminists. There are lines spoken by them that are made out to be absurd, and again the reader sees how the narrative is stolen from this group of "issue women" by the people around them to be made out as something bad. Lines like "Then they spoke about ordinary physical violence as if it wasn't just normal violence", like it's just something to be expected.

There's a lot to talk about in this book, but I don't think I'll be able to get into the rest of it. All in all, I really liked it. It takes a little bit of time to get into I think, time to get accustomed to the lack of names and get adjusted to the narrator's voice. And I wouldn't recommend to everyone, I think it takes a specific type of person to enjoy it and I am sure I know many, many people who wouldn't be able to stand it. but for those looking for a unique reading experience that takes a little bit of effort, this might be a worthwhile read.