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Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. 

By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power…

So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead. 

Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography. 

The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman. 

The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers. 

Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation. 

More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality. 

Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road. 

And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale. 

If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before. 

 

*****

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Congratulations Anna Burns for winning the Booker Prize with Milkman. This really is an astonishing book that is so rich and textured and every time I think back on it I love it a little bit more.

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I bought a copy of this on Monday evening, and had a hunch that it would win. (They were highly unlikely to give the prize to an American writer for a third consecutive year, which disqualified two of the six shortlisted titles.) I'm really looking forward to reading it.

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According to my kindle I'm 42% and loving it. Very unusual with no paragraphs and no names for characters but have chuckled many times. So far a book I can only read in short bursts, it's very intense. Congratulations to Anna Burns and hoping the win brings her to a far wider audience.

Edited by Clavain

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I've just finished this and it's outstanding!  Thoroughly enjoyed it.  Not at all familiar with the geography of Ireland so have no idea where it was actually set but I did hear myself reading in an Irish accent most of the time and could definitely hear the characters talking in an Irish accent.  Everything made complete sense to me and I laughed out loud at more than one part of this book.  It is dense and needs to be read at a slower pace (for me) than usual but I'm used to that and it didn't diminish the enjoyment.  This is very well written indeed. The prose is very good and I didn't waver from the storyline at all. It does indulge in circumlocution - circumlocution is a phrase that circles around a specific idea with multiple words rather than directly evoking it with fewer and apter words, for example : euphemism, innuendo and equivocation are different forms of circumlocution. - which can make it seem confusing but once the reader is 'tuned in' is very clever indeed.  Long chapters and few breaks the book holds together very well and it didn't take me long to 'get back into it' after I had put it down.  There is a surprise near the end regarding maybe-boyfriend that took me by surprise but the whole book was fresh and felt new.

 

A great work, recommended

Edited by lunababymoonchild

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I finished it 2 weeks ago and thought it was a very good novel.

 

The descriptions of not using names, I think works really well in that while this is about Northern Ireland, it gives it a universal feel "those across the border" and "those across the water". I loved the way she wrote the novel and it was really good.

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