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August 2019: Milkman (Burns)

posted Sep 14, 2019, 4:01 PM by East Bay Smith Club
Anna Burn’s Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman was
an exploration of cultural and political divisions.   In particular, it was
a harrowing account of one young woman’s life in Belfast during the
turbulent and violent sectarian struggles of the 1970’s.  The book has
received mixed reviews in the press, and our members also had quite divided
reactions.  It is written in a challenging, stream of consciousness style
that involves long, clause-rich sentences and paragraphs that can stretch on
for pages.  The action jumps back and forth in time, which mirrors the way
memory works when recalling traumatic events, but which also can make it
hard to follow the central events of the story.  

In the end, however, the plot is relatively straight forward.  The novel’s
narrator, who we only ever know as “middle sister,” is eighteen and living
in Belfast (though the city is never named) with her mother and three “wee
sisters.”  She tries her best to ignore the political tensions which
surround her and which have taken the lives of two of her brothers and have
caused two other siblings to flee the country.  She prefers to escape to the
pages of novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries, reading them as she
walks home from work or class or from visiting her “maybe-boyfriend,” who
lives in a different part of town.   

This habit of walking while lost in a book seems strange and crazy to her
family, friends and community.   Doesn’t she know the streets are a de facto
war zone?  Is she oblivious?   Arrogant?  Insane?   This odd behavior draws
the attention of one of the most powerful local para-militaries:  the 41
year old “Milkman,” a shadowy, menacing figure, who despite his nickname,
has never delivered anyone’s milk.   Pretending to be concerned for her
safety, he begins to stalk the narrator, offering her rides home (which she
refuses) and eventually threatening to kill her maybe-boyfriend if she
continues to refuse his advances.

The novel’s meandering and densely descriptive style provides an effective
and emotive method for conveying the psychological consequences of the
narrator’s increasing trauma and desperation as she tries to resist the
Milkman and to navigate the difficult social landscape of her community in
crisis.  The narrator’s disjointed, and yet deeply revealing, inner
monologue highlights the long term effects of living in a city that is torn
in two by a vicious conflict, one which demands fierce tribal loyalties and
which requires strict social controls to maintain loyalty and to care for
those caught up in the violence.   It is almost a master class on the costs
of such divisions, and on the terrible things that humans do in such
circumstance and the resources that they have to survive and, on occasion,
to resist.   

Perhaps, one of the clearest examples of this cost is represented by the
novel’s almost complete lack of proper names for people and for places.  It
is a society where names are vitally important, so much so that each
community has individuals who supervise the naming of all children to make
sure that no baby is given a moniker that more properly belongs to the
culture of the “other side.”  However, it is also a place where secrecy is
absolutely essential, a place where anyone could be a paramilitary operative
or, worse, an informer.  Therefore, all the characters are known simply in
terms of their connection to the narrator (e.g. third brother-in-law), their
distinguishing characteristic (e.g. Chef, the guy who liked to cook), or
their role in the community (e.g. real milkman, who actually delivered the
milk).   This stylistic device is thus appropriate to the book’s setting.
However, some reader’s may find it distracting and difficult.  (In the end,
I found it surprisingly helpful.  It meant I never had one of those moments
where I was wondering “Bill? Now, who was Bill again, was he the cousin…”)

Given these sorts of considerations, the novel’s distinctive style has
received much praise for being uniquely appropriate to its subject matter.
However, it is clearly not to everyone’s tastes, and even those of us who
loved the novel confessed to finding it difficult to get into at first.
Some never warmed to the book, and found a slog until the very end.
Perhaps we can then sympathize with the New York Times reviewer who said
that he “found Milkman to be interminable,” and that he “would not recommend
it to anyone [he] liked.” Judging by our discussion of the novel, I suspect
our members would find this condemnation too harsh.  Instead, we might
suggest reading a chapter or two and then quitting, guilt free, if you just
don’t warm to it.   

I would agree to this recommendation, with one caveat.   The novel focuses
on the narrator’s internal monologue, however, Burns has a remarkable talent
for dialogue, and through this dialogue she introduces us to some amazingly
complex and memorable characters.  The book is also incredibly funny and
poignant in parts, and in sharing a few of these passages during our
discussion, some of group discovered that they enjoyed the book and liked
its inhabitants far more than they realized.   In fact, someone suggested
the book might be like one of those movies or outings with friends that you
don’t think much of at the time, but that you come to treasure in hindsight
through remembering and retelling.  Therefore, I would add that there might
be benefits to keeping up with the book and pressing on through all the
narrator’s seemingly endless musings and frustrating moments of inaction.
In the end, as the narrator’s own psychological journey reveals, some things
cannot be adequately processed in the moment, some things only become clear
after a process of reflection.