Milkman by Anna Burns is a book that has everything. Humour, seriousness, depth, originality, nuanced characters, well-crafted prose and, most crucially, something important to say. You have an absolute treat in store if you haven’t yet read this story of an 18-year girl living through ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Miserable as it might sound, this book is a firework of a novel.
Milkman is a nameless, placeless novel but it’s quickly obvious where we are. Our heroine (in the true meaning of the word) is from a Catholic family of eleven siblings, one of whom has been killed, two of whom on the run (one to the ‘Middle East for a bit of peace and quiet and sunshine’). The father is long dead, the worried mum struggling to hold it all together.
‘Community’ usually has a positive ring to it, but here the ‘community’ has all the hallmarks of a collective surveillance effort, a stifling, Big Brother totalitarian operation. Everything you do or say will be analysed as possible signs that you’re in cahoots with those on ‘the other side’, ‘over the water’ or ‘over the border’.
The possessors of power (the men with the weapons, that is) feel entitled to have their pick of the young girls around. Thus, our heroine finds herself being stalked by a married 40-year-old paramilitary, known as Milkman, in whom she has no interests whatsoever. The community has decided otherwise, and rumours abound.
As for the community, and my affair with the milkman according to this community, I was now well in it, that being the case whether I was or not.
Milkman is a written in a stream-of-consciousness style which makes it an intense (although not difficult) read. We’re inside the racing mind of our protagonist, gripped by fear, in survival mode, constantly on the alert for political faux-pas and escape routes. No wonder all she wants to lose herself in books, preferably a nineteenth-century book ‘…because I did not like the twentieth century.’
This book is about debilitating fear, perverse abuse of power and communities on the edge. It’s as universal as it is specific to Northern Ireland. At times, it has an almost nightmarish, fairy tale-like quality, at other times, it’s hilariously funny or dead serious. Milkman is a thoroughly original and ambitious piece of fiction that is definitely worth your time.
The Man Booker Prize judges’ choice this year did exactly what book awards do at their very best: bring a new or overlooked talent out in the open. Although Anna Burns is not completely unknown, she was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002, she was new to me. I’m thrilled to have discovered her.
Milkman by Anna Burns is published Faber & Faber, 368 pages.
Read the FT’s interview with Anna Burns.