My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Milkman” was a Christmas present from my sister, who lives in Northern Ireland. It’s a perhaps contentious winner of the 2018 Booker Prize. It’s drawn a mixed critical reception and at least one friend has told me it’s “terrible”. Well, in one sense it is “terrible” in that it ingeniously gets inside the head of a young woman living through terrible times: The Troubles. I think I’m right in saying that no place names, and only one character name (Peggy) are used in the whole the book. We never learn the name of the main character. She is referred to as “third sister”. Other family members are Ma, Da, Wee Sisters, Eldest sister, third brother-in-law, Somebody McSomebody, maybe-boyfriend etc. Her persecutor, “Milkman” is not a real milkman, but there is another character called “real milkman”, also referred to under other names such as “the man who didn’t love anybody”. Belfast is not mentioned, but I’m assuming the action takes place in that city, where Anna Burns’ grew up. Places are referred to obtusely: top-end reservoir, the ten-minute area, most-popular-drinking club, the hutment.
What Burns does brilliantly is to capture the insularity, the suspicion, the distrust, the incestuousness of that city at that time. She shows how people shut down, conform, deny and are prepared to believe the worst of other people. In particular she shows how a woman can be intimidated by a stalker with little effort by the stalker himself. The menacing figure of the Milkman appears only a handful of times in the book, and yet looms over her as an ever-present threat, reinforced by the gossip and mean-spiritedness of the community. A woman who reads a book in public, a man who is interested in cooking, another man who collects pieces of British cars are all regarded with suspicion, as “beyond the pale”. Intimidation by armed men, whether Army or paramilitaries also pervades the community. Violent deaths and suicides are everyday events. Men believe they can bully women into submission. Women are drawn to violent men.
This is not necessarily an easy read, although there is a great deal of humour throughout. Perhaps it requires some knowledge of The Troubles to appreciate the achievement of portraying those times. But I think she has done it brilliantly.
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019 View all my reviews