BOOK REVIEW: Milkman by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This quirky novel is about a girl struggling to stay out of the limelight in a place where a socio-cultural schism leads to the most mundane happenings becoming a source of intrigue and speculation. The reader is never told that the aforementioned location is Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, between reading the author’s bio-blurb and having been around for the news stories from that city a few decades ago, it’s easy enough to draw that conclusion.

There’s a lot readers aren’t told in this novel. For example, we don’t learn anyone’s proper name. The characters are defined by their relationship to the protagonist (e.g. “ma,” “may-be boyfriend,” or “wee sisters”), his or her profession (e.g. “real milkman” the qualifier distinguishing said individual from the titular character [who is not nor never was – to anyone’s knowledge – an actual milkman],) or a peculiarity of said character (e.g. “tablets girl” or “nuclear boy.”) There is actually a character named “Somebody McSomebody.” One can only speculate about the author’s choice to not name the characters. My guess is that it reflects an attempt to emphasize a craving for anonymity and an avoidance of being free with detail.

The titular Milkman is a mysterious militant who takes an interest in the lead character. While the narrating lead tells us that she is definitely not interested in the Milkman, the community soon concludes that she is in a covert relationship with him. While the lead wants to keep her business to herself, there are a couple of factors working against her. First, one of her idiosyncratic behaviors – which one gets the impression she engages in to get a break from people – is walking home while reading, rather than taking the bus. This draws unwanted attention, perhaps ironically as one presumes she does this thinking that she’s slipping out of the public awareness. A second factor is that, while we are never told as much, one gets the impression that the lead is a beautiful young woman. Of course, the biggest factor is that everybody is watching everybody else like a hawk, attempting to find faults in what I call tribe signaling behavior (those actions – e.g. FaceBook posts – that serve to tell people who one is part of some group A and definitely not part of that vile group B.) For example, may-be boyfriend wins a Bentley turbo-charger and there is furor over the fact that said product usually has a little British flag on them, putting may-be boyfriend in a traitorous camp.

In one sense, this is a book about life in a place that has a specific socio-cultural fault line, specifically Northern Ireland. However, there is a lot in the story that is relevant to readers today, as we see sharp politico-cultural divides forming in many places in the world – certainly, for example, in the US. The book will make one sympathetic to the woes of those trying to opt out of tribe-signaling in a community in which to be unaffiliated is to be relegated to the lowest status imaginable.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Its humorous, albeit with the dark undertone of conflict ever-present. It’s readable and the reader will find themselves carrying about the plight of the lead.

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