James Gault reviews MILKMAN by Anna Burns
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’. Elsewhere In these pages (link here), 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 skilfully 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 troubles 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.
As well as the Booker award, this novel has also won the Orwell prize for Political fiction – a well deserved accolade.