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Book Review: Milkman By Anna Burns

The Emperor has no clothes. This was the first thought after reading Anna Burns‘ Milkman, the novel that won the Man Booker Prize in 2018. Despite this prestigious literary award, I felt as Sisyphus pushing up his rock uphill with every page and experiencing it roll down with disappointment for not getting any real action or losing train of thoughts in that long read of imitation of a stream-of-consciousness. What a shallow attempt to convert nothingness into ambitious masterpiece.

But hold your arguments in favor of the novel for a minute. Don‘t call me an ignorant book worm who doubts the verdict of the most competitive jury. The first impression is not always the concluding one. Especially when you are just rejoicing to finally getting to the end of the book (and feeling all the way cheated to such a trivial termination whatsoever). If the time passes but you still keep coming back to the novel in your mind by cracking its shell and husking the layers, it must have been a lot more you‘ve acquired than just a primary frustration.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Anna Burns plots her novel in (presumably) the same city during the 70s political conflict known as the Troubles. An eighteen-year girl is harassed by a senior paramilitary figure known as the Milkman, though „He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s.” Soon the rumour is spread in the community that she is Milkman‘s mistress and she has to live through a nightmare until the Milkman is finally shot. In fact the reader is aware of the ending from the very first sentence: „The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died“, however, it takes 300 pages to grasp it.

It‘s all about form and style that make this novel exceptional. First of all, there‘re no names given: you‘ve already noticed „Somebody McSomebody“ and perhaps wondered who the hell is he? Even the narrator, this 18-year girl, is just a „middle sister“, as she has elder siblings as well as „wee sisters“. And a „maybe-boyfriend“. So it hyperbolizes the common notion vital in the local community that tags or family bonds are much more important than your personality. They give you a tag („issue women“, „tablets girl“, „International Couple“) and they stick to it. And if you don‘t fit their strict conformism rules, you fall into the „beyond-the-pales” group. As the middle sister does but not because of the rumours of being the Milkman‘s lover but for a habit of reading while she walks.

You probably have to be from the times of Troubles to clearly feel the atmosphere the middle sister is telling about. But here comes Anna Burns‘ witty and ironic style that guides the reader through the horrors of that politically tense period when „the only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them.” It reminded me of Forest of The Gods written by the celebrated Lithuanian author Balys Sruoga who captured his terrible experience at the Nazi‘s concentration camp by turning the sufferings into a heartily satire. Hence a long list of banned names you could never give your child because they „were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoyments and resists impositions as laid down long ago in this country by that country.” Or serious debates about the maybe-boyfriend winning and taking home a Bentley spare part a with the flag of the country „over the water“ on it because „to bring that flag in then, was divisive, indicative too, of a traitorous kowtowing and betrayal most monstrous.” It‘s so absurd you shake your head with an ironic grin but the described atmosphere of a permanent fear to cross the permitted boundaries hits with a double strength.

The third thing that matters is a narrative style. This is the trickiest thing, as it is really tiresome, as paragraphs tread on other paragraphs‘ heels without a break hopping from one idea to another with words clattering a thousand per second. But it serves a purpose of imitating a stream-of-consciousness of the middle sister who tells her story as if reliving it again but also from a judging spectator‘s perspective. Though with every emotion, every doubt and every deviation of thought running for endless miles. Spoiled by an inevitability of „something really bad“ that is definitely going to happen – almost a must in a novel – you are practically paranoid to finally get to the line depicting extremely tragic happenings but the events are quite an opposite. Suddenly the Milkman, who stalks the middle sister, persecutes her physically and mentally and thanks to whom she is wrongly tagged in the local community, is shot dead. Back to a pre-Milkman life.

I‘m not sure I‘d recommend this book even to my foe. Perhaps the Emperor is not entirely naked but still not sufficiently decent to appear in front of the mass audience.

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