I haven’t been keeping up much with new books this year and decided not to attempt to read the whole Booker longlist (no one on the shadow panel of past years seemed keen this year, and I’ve been having too much fun reading older books lately to want to set them aside for a month or two). However, I did take a look at the list to see if any intrigued me that I could easily get my hands on. Milkman by Anna Burns stood out on the list, and I was able to get an e-galley right away.
Milkman is written in a stream of consciousness style that I sometimes find hard to like, even if skillfully done. It just so often comes across to me as a gimmick that obscures a lack of real storytelling. In the case of Milkman, I found it hard to warm up to initially, but once I got into the story and the main characters’ voice, I was totally in it.
The book’s central character refers to herself most of the time as “middle sister.” Although she’s part of a big family, she’s a solitary type, who enjoys going for runs on her own and walking around reading a book. But recent events have made her connections to others more significant. Mainly, she’s being pursued by a paramilitary leader known as Milkman. Milkman keeps turning up when she goes on runs or is on her way home from classes, and he drops dark hints about what might happen to her “maybe boyfriend” if she doesn’t give in to his advances. And people in the community are starting to talk, seeing middle daughter as “his,” even though she’s expressed no interest.
The book is set in 1970s Northern Ireland, the time of the Troubles, when knowing where people’s loyalties are is essential. Some people are intensely political, joining paramilitary groups and fighting the government, but others are simply trying to get by, trying to avoid drawing the wrong kind of attention because the wrong kind of attention can put you “beyond the pale.” Everyone is watched, and every action matters — something Middle Sister feels intently, especially after Milkman starts taking an interest in her.
One thing that Burns captures really well is that niggling feeling that something isn’t right, even when there’s no hard evidence for discomfort. It’s something I suspect many women are familiar with, and Middle Sister goes through all the questions of whether she should say something and how people will respond and what she should do to keep herself and others safe, even if she doesn’t speak up. The narrative style serves Burns well here, as we’re fully inside Middle Sister’s head, seeing how her mind works as she makes choices, and only once in a while getting glimpses of how she comes across. At one point, when she’s given a firm talking to about her behavior, the revelation is as much a shock to the reader as to Middle Sister.
One thing I’ve been mulling over is Burns’s decision to avoid giving her characters names — I think only two or three names are mentioned in the entire book. Like stream-of-consciousness narration, this kind of choice can seem like a gimmick. But I think Burns is getting at something about how people’s relationships to the wider community can matter just as much as (perhaps more than) their individual identities, especially in a time of crisis.
So it this book worthy of the Booker? I certainly liked it better than some past winners and many past nominees. Burns is trying to do some interesting, original things here, and I think she mostly succeeds. It’s not the kind of book I’m inclined to love, but that’s more about personal preference. I do think it’s a good book, and I would be happy to see it move forward.