Milkman by Anna Burns: A review

I had seen and heard quite a bit of comment about Anna Burns' book, not all of it complimentary. In fact, there were a couple of reviews in the national publications that I read that were downright negative. Then the Man Booker Prize committee chose Milkman for their prestigious award for 2018. Inquiring minds wanted to know: Who was right - those negative reviewers or the Man Booker people? So, I decided to read it myself and decide.

I found out right away that the book is somewhat challenging to read, at least at first. It is written in a stream of consciousness style with sentences that seem to run on, paragraphs that often go on for pages, and seemingly neverending chapters. Finding a place to stop, or at least to pause, is not easy and that can be somewhat annoying for those of us who are unable to sit down and read straight through a book but have to stop occasionally to do other things. But I managed to work around the problem by making my own artificial stopping places.

The narrator of this stream of consciousness storytelling is an eighteen-year-old girl in an unnamed country and city, although it soon becomes clear from the context that it is Northern Ireland and most likely Belfast. The story takes place in the 1970s during the "Troubles."

The narrator (who also is unnamed) is a nonconformist in a society that seems to value conformity above all else, with everyone thinking and behaving the same. She initially draws attention to herself because she likes to walk around town reading books as she walks. Her choice of reading material is generally 19th century novels. It is her way of rejecting and expressing her hatred of the 20th century in which she lives and withdrawing from her oppressive society.

That she is a walking reader is bad enough but then a local "renouncer" (IRA) leader, who is in his 40s and married, notices her and seemingly becomes obsessed with her. He turns up everywhere she goes and talks to her, making clear his interest in her, although he never touches her. This man, for reasons that are not clear at first, is called the Milkman, although he isn't a real milkman.

The neighborhood soon jumps to the conclusion that the narrator has become the mistress of Milkman. Her own mother makes the same assumption. Everyone treats her as though this were a fait accompli and they react to her accordingly. Her mother engages in long harangues about her "fallen woman" status.

Meanwhile, the narrator continues an affair with a young man from another part of town, her "maybe-boyfriend" with whom she has been in a secret relationship for almost a year. Her family is completely unaware. He is never allowed to come to her house.

None of this sounds like a likely source of humor and yet this novel is often very funny. One can feel the narrator's frustration at being so misunderstood and being trapped in a suffocatingly self-righteous society which inflicts its own brand of political oppression on its members, but she writes of it in a light manner that makes it possible to actually laugh wryly at it all.

While I was reading this book, I was also watching HBO's series My Brilliant Friend and I couldn't help noting the similarities in the oppressive patriarchal society of 1950s Naples and 1970s Northern Ireland. Lenu and Lila in Naples adopted an affectless demeanor to deal with the violent atmosphere in which they lived. Milkman's narrator, too, does not show emotion as she wanders around her dangerous city. It is their way of dealing with the almost unbearable stress of their daily lives.

So what was my conclusion after all that? Did I agree with those negative reviewers or with the Man Booker committee? 

On the whole, I come down on the side of the Man Booker folks. The book is extraordinary in its storyline and its telling of what is essentially a tragic story in a manner that is often exceptionally funny. The humor makes the whole thing bearable and the story even more human. It takes a very good writer to do that.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars      


  1. Thank you for your excellent, as always, review. Yesterday Milkman made the Tournament of Books shortlist nudging me closer to reading it, now you have given me the final push. And...another reason it was a good thing I studied that stream of consciousness novel The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector.

    1. Stream of consciousness and characters without names seem to be the new "in" things in fiction. This is the second book that I've read quite recently that employed those techniques at least to some extent. I suppose refusing to give the characters names and only referring to them by their roles in the story is a way of defining them simply by those roles rather than by their personal characteristics. It's an interesting way of dealing with things.

  2. Great review, Dorothy. While I tolerate experimental, even unusual, writing styles rather well, I am not into streams of consciousness. I probably would have as much trouble reading this book as most readers have.

    1. I certainly admit that it wasn't an easy read, although I found it to be worthwhile and ultimately rewarding. But to each his/her own. There are too many good books out there to spend time with one you are sure you are not going to like.


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