It’s taken me an entire month to read this book. It was worth it.
Milkman is the Booker Prize winner from author Anna Burns. It is a dense, powerful, thrilling, frightening narrative about a community living under long term pressure and violence and how normality warps under such pressure. Although the town it is set in is not named, and the time it is set in is undefined, it is clear to see that it is set in a town which mirrors Belfast in the seventies, during the troubles. There are other themes here too, sexism and misogyny, spousal abuse, romance, and self identification, self awareness all play a part n the over all structure, but all are layered up and woven in with the oppression of a whole community.
When I describe the book as ‘dense’ I am describing not only the tight, thick, break-less pages, the careful, multi layer construction of dialogue and internal thoughts, but also the density of the situation. The town depicted is relentlessly rule driven, except the rules change constantly. Nothing is as it should be, this is a society in extremes, except, of course, even in extremes people have lives, people get on with stuff and in this case the society has twisted itself into a shape in which violent murders and paramilitary activity are the norm. One of the most powerful aspects of the book is the way that things remain unnamed. People here live on the edge of loss, so seem to avoid that loss by never committing to owning anything, not streets, not towns, not husbands or wives, in fact the people in this story avoid losing the people they love by settling for the people they don’t love and resenting it their whole lives. Children are not named, they are simply denoted by their placement in the family order, as if, like a snack machine, one might be pushed out into death and replaced by the next in line. Community members are denoted by their actions, everyone has a nickname which implies their place in the herd, with the outsiders, the ‘beyond the pales’ in the dangerous predicament of being on the outside of the herd, where they could be picked off at any point. In this way it has a feel of The Handmaid’s Tale to it, it has the same level of frantic anxiety, tied down and restricted beneath the guise of a normality put in place by an oppressive force, and this makes it intensely chilling.
The main protagonist, the eighteen year old ‘middle daughter’ avoids the political state that she lives in by keeping her head in 19th century literature, not even looking up from said books when out walking about. She runs for pleasure, but is monitored when she does; she drinks with friends, but only in approved drinking places and her friends are pre ordered into political and non political friendships. This is how it is here, there are kangaroo courts, and death on every corner. She begins to be labelled as ‘beyond the pale’ and also begins to attract a high profile paramilitary, the Milkman, but being a woman she is powerless to assert any choice in the matter.
This is a brilliant book. It isn’t a book that you can swallow whole in one sitting, but it is beautifully, intricacy, carefully, cleverly and wryly put together. The choice of language, of style, is so perfect, so ‘beyond the pale’ that it is striking, real, something about it rings utterly true in a frightening, realistic way. It is almost dystopian, like looking down the lens to the future, but it is also the past, and also the present. I look forward to reading more from Anna Burns.