Book review- Milkman

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, £8.99)

Anna Burns was the right winner of the Man Booker Prize last year for this highly original novel about an 18 year old girl struggling to survive in war-torn Belfast at the height of ‘the Troubles’ – a war that lasted 38 years (at least) and the repercussions of which are still very close to the surface.

The writing is spectacularly different – a sort of stream-of-consciousness, but one that crackles with wit, seethes with menace and fizzes with what feels like unexploded bombs just waiting to be detonated. Our narrator is ‘middle sister’ (no one is given a name, naming is dangerous, naming exposes one to risk and consequence) who has a ‘maybe boyfriend’, a ‘ma’ desperate to get her daughter married – to anyone of the right religion not already married – and a cast of siblings that includes ‘broken-hearted’, ‘married to the wrong spouse’, ‘first sister’; brothers ‘dead’ and ‘on the run’, and irrepressibly precocious ‘wee sisters’.

She is also being stalked. By Milkman. Who always knows where she is, who her boyfriend is, which bus she catches, where she runs and what she reads.

The way in which Milkman gradually, invisibly, insidiously affects middle sister’s mental, physical and emotional health is articulated through her rambling and chaotic thoughts and fears. Her sense of utter aloneness in the face of who could she possibly tell, and what is there, to tell anyway? will bring back memories of the awful drip-by-drip building of tension in the Archers’ Helen and Rob story not so long ago. Add to this the backdrop of the war story – of renouncers of the state against defenders of the state, of kangaroo courts, of curfews, of balaclavas, of gun hoards and assassinations and car bombs and tarring and feathering and the reader realises, perhaps for the first time (in my case), just how awful this was.

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