BOOK REVIEW: Milkman by Anna Burns

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When a book wins one of the biggest prizes in literature, it’s usually a sign something worthwhile happens within its pages. This year’s Man Booker Prize Winner is, to put it simply, incredibly worthwhile.

A young woman is stalked by a paramilitary leader in a city under heavy surveillance, her life constantly threatened by car bombings, poisonings, and guerrilla warfare. While the premise may sound dystopian, Milkman is not about a near-future war-zone, but rather a war-zone from the past. Set in 1970s Belfast, Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Milkman is a story about conflict, rumour, and a young woman’s inability to defend herself from the gossip of a community that has marked her as different.

Middle Sister, an eighteen year old whose real name is never revealed, attracts the sexual attention of a paramilitary leader called The Milkman because of her habit of reading and walking. In a city where being unusual or interesting means being dangerous, Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking habit and sudden attraction of The Milkman put her at risk of becoming a pariah and being added to the list of community “beyond-the-pales” alongside a man who loves no one and a woman who poisons people. The Milkman’s stalking of Middle Sister falls second in her list of problems, the first being the town gossips who quickly spread word she is having an affair with the married paramilitary leader.

It had been my fault too, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.

The landscape and plot of Milkman are bleak. Middle Sister becomes increasingly isolated from those around her - including her own mother and Maybe-Boyfriend, a young man she has been dating for almost a year but has kept secret from her family. Those closest to her refuse to believe her word over the word of the gossips, and in her seclusion Middle Sister becomes even more susceptible to The Milkman’s stalking.

But despite her terrifying situation, Middle sister has true personality. Her rambling descriptions of her home city and her family members and friends are insightful and almost always humorous. Even her portrayal of the man tormenting her are lively and vivid, filled out by off-shoot stories and histories she feels compelled to share and that always manage to feel right when woven into the story. In one particularly entertaining passage, Middle Sister branches off from her ramblings about The Milkman to describe her mother’s self consciousness about her aging body.

And now it was her face. It has “declined”, she said. Then was lines and age-spots and wrinkles. “This one here” - she came close for me to note a particular wrinkle. I noted. It was a wrinkle. Amongst others. At the top of her cheek. On her face.

Anna Burns, originally from Belfast, has written one of the most compelling, entertaining novels about conflict I’ve read in a long time. She has beautifully captured the hardships of being a woman in a zone run by men driven by anger. Middle Sister’s inability to defend herself or seek protection for herself will resonate with many women around the world.

The cast of characters in Milkman — Middle Sister, Tablets Girl, The Man Who Loves No One, Maybe-Boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody — will drag readers in and engage them throughout. Their adaptation to the complicated and dangerous political setting they live in creates an atmosphere of desperation, acceptance and apathy that, while confusing, offers the perfect context for exploring womanhood.

Milkman is a masterfully written, totally troubling, and deeply funny account of a young woman’s life in the most unusual of circumstances. You will love Middle Sister before you’re even through the first chapter, and you’ll be sad to say goodbye to her at the end of the book.