The book made me laugh out loud, viscerally, and I might be considered ‘beyond the pale’ or I’d rather be in legion with “the real milkman”.
The historical backdrop is obviously important for the story. Aside from satirical political and religious implications, the human instincts and cultivated traits (spousal/familial relation, personal interaction, generation, aging, jealousy, community) ridiculed are what I savor the most.
It didn’t take me long to get over the reiterant fuss of making simple points, and to synchronize with the rap poetry for sheer bliss.
Recycled words and their derivative forms, achieved the strongest effect with the least spelling variants (naming names would add complexity, so eliminated, except for “Milkman” which is either his first or family name).
The book would, at least, delight the fans of Ulysses. It also reminds me of "Wu xiang jie" published in 2011, and better executed.
I loved this endearingly frenetic stream-of-conscious tale. For me, the author unveils how 'group-think' can possess and hold back a community, and women, in a completely original novel. Most important, the protagonist reveals how you can think that you are your own person but really the community (and luck, in the end) influences each of us much more than we probably want to admit.
Not for me.
I actually enjoyed the first half (and more) of Milkman. Set (sort of) in the 1970s, in a thinly disguised, sectarian savaged Belfast, the book tells the story of "middle sister," a quirky 18 year old woman, who likes to read 19th Century novels while walking, is an avid runner, and who is trying to figure out where she stands with her car mechanic "maybe-boyfriend" (barring one ironic exception, there are no actual names used in the novel). When I say "sort of," it's because sprinkled throughout the book are indications that this is a story told by an older someone who is looking back. If this is meant to be some sort of framing device, nothing is really done with it.
As I said above, I really enjoyed the first half of book, and fell in love with middle sister's voice. She can be quite funny in her observations and interactions with others. She is part of a large Irish Catholic family, that has lost a few members due to the political violence of "The Troubles." Middle sister is not a political person, and much of what she does (reading, running, taking a French class) can be viewed as ways to cope and escape the violent landscape. But that doesn't mean she isn't aware of it, just that compartmentalization is necessary in order to retain some sanity in an insane and violent world.
But such compartmentalization doesn't prevent middle sister from being noticed by a feared (and much older) paramilitary killer called "the milkman." Middle sister does her best to avoid milkman's overtures, but adding to the pressure is local gossip (which can be quite poisonous). This is all revealed through stream-of-consciousness digressions, which I never found hard to follow. Anyone who has rocked with Faulkner's "The Bear" or "Sound and Fury," should view middle sister's tale as child's play. And Burns makes this easy enough since she spaces things nicely in the first half of the book. The events are essentially few (maybe-boyfriend, milkman, running, a walk back from French class), and the stream of consciousness clutter minimal. This is middle sister's story. Various family members and other acquaintances are kept on the periphery. Around mid-book there comes about a 50 page sequence involving middle sister's French class, which she has to walk to in another "mixed" district. For me this was the high point of the book. From her class window middle sister sees the dreaded milkman's white van (she being followed), so she fears an encounter with him on her long walk home. But it's not so much the distance but the emotional and historical terrain revealed by the passing of several landmarks along the way. In particular, the "ten minutes" place, a haunted and blasted place once occupied by three churches whose close-together spires formed a "witches hat." But one church has recently been destroyed by an old Nazi bomb. (Apparently Belfast was heavily bombed during WW 2.) Anyway, a cat's head, the milkman, creepy buildings, paranoia, etc. I loved it.
Unfortunately, it's at this point I felt Burns' grip on the novel slipped. What follows is a death march of digressions, with each following a dot the i and cross the t pattern. You are also bombarded with a cast of characters, who are meant to be colorful (Nuclear Boy, Tablet's Girl, Somebody McSomebody various family members) but who are mostly flat in a page-multiplying way. Particularly annoying were middle sister's younger "wee sisters." Three little girls who are presented as improbable prodigies who can read Conrad, Kafka, Hardy. This silly Pynchonian twist didn't seem to match the tone of the book's previous half. The book soon became a slog. So much so that I finished the last 90 pages in one day (I'm not a fast reader) out of fear that I might not finish it at all. Well, I did. Burns has some interesting thoughts on gender, terror, running & reading, and the 1970s, etc., but those get lost in a sea of repetitions that drown out the memorable voice of a spunky heroine.
I agree with some others that this book is dense going. The New York Times reviewer was not at all fond of it. However, I very much enjoyed the quirky style and the terms and descriptions that describe the characters in Northern Ireland during hard times in a unique way. Burns created a cast of curious and intriguing characters and portrayed a stifling sense of life in a very conservative setting where conventions require standard behavior while allowing little variation. I loved the quirky characters ( the wee sisters, almost-boyfriend) and the stress of the main character seeking to find her place. It gave me a new sense of life very different from my own as a white American male.
With the stream-of-conscious, digressive narrative voice of the protagonist, Milkman doesn't make for easy reading. But I persevered, because despite at times putting the book down when weary, I found myself thinking about it, kind of hypnotically. It's a book that asks for time and space in which to read it, for a reader's absorption and attention. It's set in the time of the Troubles in Ireland, though for the first few pages I couldn't place this, and it had a surreal quality that made me wonder if it was set in some near-future dystopian police state. A sense of dread and the psychological effects of the political climate permeate the book as the protagonist (unnamed, except in reference to her relation to others - "middle sister", "maybe-girlfriend", "daughter") is stalked by a menacing paramilitary. Numbed and emotionally dissociated by the stress and fear of being stalked, the boundaries of her life shrink, no longer does she feel free to "walk-while-reading", run long distances alone, or to tell anyone of her plight - silenced by a collective understanding that emotional violence against women does not constitute action. A novel which provokes reflection on power, freedom, how we relate to others, and the societies that shape us, Milkman rewards the persistent reader.
Read 90 pages and decided my time would be well spent reading something else.
The novel Milkman was a book I was looking forward to reading in the new year but was unfortunately heavily let down. Anna Burns is clearly a talented writer, but the narrative of consciousness style in this book failed to hold my attention and I eventually gave up on this book after reading about 100 pages. The book attempts to address an important subject but does so in a manner that is less artful and literary than too clever for its own good. This book has such good potential and grace to become a book that many would read but I think it was portrayed in a slightly jaded way. The Narrator or the main character sounded like she wasn’t as invested in her world as the author tried to make her be. It was a really good subject to be addressed but I think was done in a mediocre way. Rating: 3 out of 5
@PocketFullOfBooks22 of the Teen Review Board at the Hamilton Public Library
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