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Milkman - Anna Burns

Updated: Jan 11, 2019

I found this book incredibly hard to get into, I think it’s the longest time I’ve taken reading a book ever. I had to take a break from it for a few weeks and come back to it with a fresh perspective. The first half at least, I found it extremely monotonous and exhausting to read, however, maybe that is the point…

Set in this unnamed city, the story follows the unnamed protagonist – middle sister’s attempt to go unnoticed in a terror-torn state. The novel follows this 18-year-old girl’s experience juggling violence, gossip, rumours and her dark encounter with Milkman, a local renouncer of the state who it becomes apparent is stalking her. While the story is and does refer to the atrocities of war, it is not solely concentrated on this, the narrator creates an environment of fear not around the possibility of being killed but of being noticed and identified as different by your neighbours. The daily anxiety is ironically the effects of gossip. The plot relates the psychological fears that this environment can create, leaving the reader also reeling from the effects. The characters are living in an increasingly fabricated, illusory world that changes fact into fiction leaving an exhausted society behind.

The novel is about an unnamed city in Northern Ireland during the time of the Troubles, yet this location is not symbolic of just this place in time but could be referring to any community stifled by social pressure, gossip, expectations, rumours, politics and religion. The book is in a sense universal, to categorise or restrict it to a time or place would in a sense lose its power. The struggles discussed in this novel are transferable to any highly surveyed society. It does in many ways feel like a dystopian novel.

Burn’s choice of taking away the names of the city and the characters creates a powerful prose. It again mirrors the focal point of the novel – that no character has control over their own identity, their character is decided on by the community regardless of fact or fiction. Rumour and hearsay dictate each person’s life, therefore it makes sense to depersonalise the characters as they themselves are living in a state of depersonalisation. The lack of pronouns adds to the paranoia of the novel, the nameless adds to the importance of being anonymous and unseen. This writing style also reflects the protagonist’s mindset of deafness and obliviousness to the world around her – her cluelessness about even her own brothers, sisters, boyfriend reflects her choice to be ignorant and amnesic. While this is the only way she knows how to survive in this war-torn state, as the book drags on it is less a survival mechanism and instead results in her mental disintegration. The increasing stalking by Milkman was an interesting, although uncomfortable aspect of the novel. Milkman embodies and symbolises in a way the town and community; the continuous surveillance, the omnipresence, the invasion of privacy up to the point of madness.

This book is distinctive, while for myself it is not a writing style I particularly enjoyed – endless, no paragraphs, no room to breathe, I felt slightly suffocated while reading (dramatic but true). You cannot escape from the book, there is no light relief or breaks from the protagonist's stream of thoughts. And yet this is something I grew to admire throughout the book – while it was tiresome and weary and at first seemingly pointless to me, I realised that this writing style mirrors the protagonists growing deterioration, weariness and inability to have a break from the constant surveillance and pressure of living in this torn up dangerous state. While at first, I felt like I had uncovered little about ‘middle sister’, in the end you feel her depression and desperation even if you don’t see her recognise it. This is partially why I cannot say it was particularly an enjoyable read, however, I do admire the originality of Burn’s writing and why the Man Booker Prize Judges said it was ‘stylistically utterly distinctive.’

The narrative voice is circular, repetitive and goes off on tangents for pages at a time about inconsequential anecdotes which are at times painfully boring to read. This did leave me at times thinking the plot was hanging on by a tangible thread and left as an afterthought rather than the main focus. The protagonist at times is not particularly able to like or dislike, I certainly felt sorry for her, empathised with her when she is continuously not believed and yet she was hard to fully sympathise as I just wanted her to get up and scream at people the truth. Her inane determination to stay silent and invisible was infuriating to read. It is like the blurb states ‘a story of inaction with enormous consequences’ and yet you want and need her to take action!!!! Indeed, most of the characters I did not really like, most I actually severely disliked.

I will remember this book, but I am yet to decide if it is because I actually enjoyed it or because it was such a notable novel.

Overall a 6/10.

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