Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman – Anna Burns (Graywolf Press, 2018)

I’ll admit, it took me quite a while to finish this book. While that doesn’t sound like a rave review, I don’t blame Milkman. This was a book that required a certain amount of attention, a certain buy-in if you will. The style of the writing and the format of the story meant that it wasn’t easy to dip in and out of. As a reader, I had to be focused and alert and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Our narrator is unnamed, as are most of the characters. She’s eighteen years old, living in an unnamed country full of troubles and political instability, particularly when it comes to relations with the country “over there”. This is obviously Ireland but the unnamed quality of it all means that many countries or political situations can be seen in this story.

For me, this was the overall strength of Milkman which, I felt, was really a story about a young woman and how the world around her controlled her choices and actions. Ireland and the Troubles made for a unique and powerful setting but the issues that face our narrator were, at their heart, ones faced by young women all over the world and all through time.

Our narrator lives with her widowed mother and her three “wee sisters”. She has older brothers and sisters, at least one deceased, and with varying involvement with the “renouncers”. Her mother is putting pressure on her to get married but she keeps her “maybe-boyfriend” a secret and is unable to pursue a real relationship with him. She’s an oddball in her neighbourhood, partially due to her habit of reading while walking. One day she attracts the attention of a man known as Milkman, a powerful leader in the paramilitary. He begins following her and everyone arounds her believes they are involved, despite the fact she’s never spoken to him. Her standing in the community changes and it’s fascinating to watch this develop. How she relates to those around her and how they relate to her, including her own family.

Early on in the novel there is a scene where the narrator realizes she cannot go running by herself anymore because the Milkman will find her and follow her. While the situation here is unique, the reality of a young woman feeling unsafe in her regular activities is painfully familiar. As is the attitude that follows her that she must have wanted his attention, must be enjoying it or benefiting from it.

Yes, the book felt long. Overall, I thought the lack of names worked well in the context of the story but it did get confusing at times, especially when I took breaks in my reading. I’m still not quite sure how many brothers and sisters the narrator had. At the same time, it reveals something about the power of names (and there’s an interesting diversion into acceptable and unacceptable names within their community) and the reveal towards the end about a character’s true name is also an interesting statement.

I’m not surprised this won the Man Booker Prize last year. Timely is a word that gets thrown around a lot about books these days and it’s strange to call a book set approximately forty years ago “timely” but it still feels apt. If you have the space to devote some time and attention to Milkman, I recommend it.

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns”

    1. Thank you! This was a trickier one for me because I definitely enjoyed it but it wasn’t a “fun” read. You’re right that it has its own unique rewards!

  1. Interesting that you felt it had universal applications. I’ve only seen reviews from Irish and British people before and, having been so close to the Troubles for all our lives, most of them have spoken specifically about what it has to say about the effects on Northern Ireland itself. I guess it takes distance to be able to see it in a broader perspective… as I say, interesting!

    1. If it were possible, it would be interesting to read it again, with greater knowledge of Ireland and the context of the Troubles. Without being more familiar with it all, it was really the story of a young woman and the magnifying glass she is put under by her community that stood out to me.

    2. I’m actually more intrigued to read it by your review – it sounds awful to say it but I’m so bored with the Troubles, having lived through them during all the bombings and bomb scares and news reports every night on the news for at least the first forty or so years of my life. I felt I didn’t need to read yet another book about them, but you’ve made me see that the book isn’t as narrow in scope as I thought…

    3. I remember being vaguely aware of stuff going on in Ireland as a kid and being confused by it all. And then when I studied British history in university it hadn’t made it into the courses yet (too recent, I guess). So most of what I know is actually from books! I’d be curious to hear your reaction to this book, if you do end up reading it.

  2. Great review! This book was definitely hard work but so worth it. And I saw in your other comment that you’re interested in learning more about the Troubles, so I really can’t recommend Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe highly enough!!

  3. As a reader, I would almost wish that the author just chose to call the country Ireland, specifically north, because it’s so obvious that’s what it is. To not name characters is a strangely post-modern thing to do, and I would argue we’re past that style. Overall, interesting review!

    1. Yeah, I’m not generally a huge fan of the no name thing. I do think here that it mostly works and it’s clear that she has a purpose. You could argue that simply by using the term “Troubles” she is naming Ireland. At the same time, if you were really, truly ignorant about it all you could read it as completely made-up. It feels impossible in parts and then painfully real in other parts.

  4. Great review! This book definitely takes some work, but I thought it was so worth the payoff. I loved the way it explored the power of rumor and community opinion in particular. I’m glad you appreciated it in the end, it did seem like a worthy Booker winner to me as well!

    1. Thanks! I think it was a deserved Booker win too! Other Booker winners I’ve read have been kind of odd and difficult to approach for me so I kind of expected it here!

  5. I’ll be honest, when I read the description of this book I thought “Not for me” but you’ve made it sound quite intriguing. I’ve got Ducks, Newburyport on my shelf right now and I’m dreading getting into it because it’s written in a similar style I believe. I can’t imagine it will win the Booker this year because it seems similiar (in format) to Milkman…

    1. Ducks, Newburyport looks so completely intimidating! It’s so big! And I feel like if I’m going to read that I should probably finish Ulysses first. I think you might like Milkman though, primarily because I think it does shine such an interesting and unique light on the experience of young women.

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