Review: Milkman, Anna Burns (2018)

img_0580Milkman is an intense and claustrophobic novel. Anna Burns skilfully evokes a repressive social atmosphere, with constraining codes of appropriate behaviour and heavy social policing, saturated by the pervasive threat of serious violence. The struggles of her young female protagonist to both remain herself and remain safe by fitting in are affecting, while the eponymous Milkman generates real menace.   If that sounds heavy and gloomy, it’s not (or not all!): there’s also plenty of humour and wit, even while the tension is maintained.
Set in a paramilitary run community in Northern Ireland during ‘the sorrows, the losses, the troubles, the sadnesses’ the violence of the conflict seeps into everything.  The physicality of the conflict – the very tangible, noisy, often fatal violence of it – has a central role in its disempowering effect on the unnamed 18-year-old female protagonist, making her unable to name or even coherently think about the slow, sinister, stalking and grooming Milkman is subjecting her to.  In thinking of one her brothers-in-law, a potential confidant, she says that he would be ‘incapable of believing that anything that wasn’t physical between two people could, in fact, be going on. I also shared this belief, as did everyone else – about someone not doing something, so how could they be doing something’.  This I think was broadly true across the UK, and beyond, and has persisted – we can see some of the reaction to this problem of being unable to name things that are uncomfortable and feel planned in the weird spectrum of alleged transgressions in #metoo.  The very real, intimidating and enervating effect of this behaviour is brought powerfully to life here. Set in the 1970s, I found it has a lot to say to today’s debate around gender and sexual violences and misdemeanours.
Milkman also has a strong theme of the difficulties of trying to be yourself, especially for young women, in such a regimented community with rigid roles for everyone.  The codes for men are stricter, and punishments for transgression more severe, but their effect is not as repressive and limiting of life as those for women.  For all though, this conformist and embattled community has the effect of a limiting of horizons. Returning to her area from ‘downtown’ the protagonist feels ‘that constriction, that insidious ‘There’s no point, what’s the use, what’s the point?’’.  Similarly, an old family friend, recognising the obvious intellectual potential of her three youngest sisters warns of this potential being crushed, or thwarted, or misdirected if they are left to themselves in this environment.
Milkman is this year’s Booker winner and it is very good.  I hadn’t read any of the reviews before starting it – it’s my only action thus far as part of inchoate plan to read more Booker winning or shortlisted novels  – so I was mildly surprised to read  of it being thought a difficult or challenging novel. It’s a colloquial first-person stream of consciousness narrative, with a colloquial syntax (‘Never have I…’ etc.) that takes a little adjustment to, but I didn’t find it a problem, and once I’d learnt to go with it I found it very effective.  The use of repetition also worked for me, bringing home both the mundanity and repetition of closed lives, lived in an insular community, and also, as it progressed, the effect of Milkman’s predations on the protagonist’s mental functioning.  Towards the middle of the book, I did find it began to test my patience, with seemingly not enough going on to justify the ploughing through of such long similar passages.  The grinding effect of this was not entirely enjoyable in the moment, but having persisted the effect was powerful.
If you’re at all put off by the challenging reputation of Milkman, don’t be. This is a very serious novel, but also one stuffed full of wit.  The style is unusual, but effective and sometimes joyous to read. This is the last book I’ll read in 2018, and it means I’m ending the year on a high.