#indiechallenge – Milkman (Anna Burns)

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The blurb

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is to be dangerous. Middle sister is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her trouble and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. to be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

The author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

The bookshop

I bought this in Hatchards in Saint Pancras station (and missed my train). Hatchards is a subsidiary of Waterstones these days, but the carrier bags are a very classy green and gold design, if you care about that sort of thing.

The bingo card

This could count for either ‘an award winner’ or ‘a press over 20 years old’. This one the Booker Prize in 2018, and Faber & Faber have been around for a very long time.

My thoughts

This was one of three books offered as choices for my office book club, and I have to admit that my first thought on seeing the shortlist was, ‘Ugh, this is all a bit worthy’. By the time we’d all voted and the results had come back, however, I’d read a review of this by a friend, which suggested that this novel wasn’t going to be as much of a slog as I’d feared.

And it wasn’t. What I’d heard about it – that it’s set in the Troubles; that the paragraphs are long and the prose is involved; that hardly anybody has a name – was all true. But, although it was often grim and often bleak, it sometimes struck a gorgeous seam of hope and sometimes made me laugh outright; although I occasionally lost track in the middle of a flashback in the middle of a conversation, I always had a reasonable idea of what was going wrong; and the thing with the names didn’t bother me at all. After all, we often find ourselves talking about ‘you know, thingummy, the narrator’s sister’s husband, the one with the shop,’ even when we’re talking about books where all the characters have names. The narrator was unreliable, but not in the annoying way, more in a demonstration of how living in the middle of a state of war messes with your head, and how other people don’t see us the way we see ourselves.

And it was all horribly plausible. The unwritten rules of interaction are written down here; the narrator knows them (she thinks) and sets them out as a thing that everybody knows. Burns makes the link between ‘existing as a woman’ (which is a thing that I know about) and ‘existing as a person in the middle of sectarianism and violence’ (which is something that I don’t), and it’s very effective:

I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so, though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family, and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude….

At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near.

I thought Milkman was well-observed and convincing and, rather to my surprise, I enjoyed it very much. Book club hasn’t met yet. I’ll be interested to see what the general response is…

3 thoughts on “#indiechallenge – Milkman (Anna Burns)

  1. I read the opening chapter of Milkman and ran away from it; the building menace, the powerlessness of the girl when the man started stalking her like a prey with a sense of inevitably scared me too much to continue. Why did I react so strongly? I have never experienced that level of threat. Cracking writing, to evoke that response.

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