Literary prizes can do wonders for a book’s sales – even if that win is considered controversial. Enter Milkman by Anna Burns, the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018 and probably its most hotly debated victor since Graham Swift’s Last Orders some 20 years ago. That one created waves because it was roundly considered to be not that good; Milkman, however, is routinely considered fantastic but a hell of a slog to get through, so the question was, is that ever OK?
Well, I’m here to tell you, YES, IT IS because Anna Burns is a writer of immense skill and this book is not always easy-going for a damn good reason. And HUGE props to a writer willing to take such a risk, let alone pull it off, which Anna does with aplomb.
Milkman is narrated by a Catholic girl of 18 who lives with her family in an unnamed town/city in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. We never know the Narrator’s name but it’s clear she’s thought of as a bit odd by her family and neighbours – a bit of an introverted bookworm with intimacy and attachment issues.
However, from her viewpoint, we get to bear witness to the impact of the civil war; the punishing, terrible and sometimes almost comical rules and recriminations that bind this community together, from the hidden stashes of guns in neighbours’ gardens to the requirements to eat only certain types of butter, from the criminal disappearances to which side of the road everyone must walk on.
Into this hellfire walks the Milkman, a feared paramilitary who takes an interest in our Narrator; an interest that manifests in stalking, harassment and intimidation. The young woman doesn’t want his interest but, in the eyes of her community, not only did she probably ask for it but she is now someone of note. Someone with power.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Fascinating, even. And it is; it’s phenomenal. So, why is it such hard work to get through?
Well, it is because our narrator is autistic/on the spectrum. It’s never spelt out, but it becomes increasingly clear this is so. Her stream of consciousness is therefore intense, dense and spins off on seemingly random trajectories. Paragraphs take up whole pages and other people’s actions and reactions are meticulously noted.
It’s tough going – so, why did Anna choose this? Because a writer of Anna’s skill was never going to give us a run-of-the-mill insight into Northern Ireland; rather, I sense she uses the narrator for both representation, a clever way to minutely observe so much of the oddities of a community enforcing bizarre rules on itself – and as a brilliant attack on ‘otherism’.
Our narrator is considered odd, but she has clinical insight into social conventions and, the more we see her community through her eyes, we are forced to weigh up who exactly is the odd one here?
A masterclass and a worthy winner.