Book Habit Blog: The Milkman

by Anna Burns

Winner of the Man Booker Prize (the UK’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize) 2018

What keeps the reader engaged in The Milkman is that the novel is rarely predictable – the actions of the quirky characters are not consistent – the “madding crowd” is, in fact, mad (as, say, the hatter).

The author, Anna Burns, grew up in Northern Ireland.  Informed by Burns’ life, the milieu of the unnamed country in Milkman is onerous and the populace always under threat. The protagonist, Middle Sister, 18, copes by making herself invisible, or so she thinks. She walks while she reads 19th century novels.  Her neighborhood finds this behavior so unacceptable as to be “beyond the pale,” worthy of scorn and suspicion. She takes French classes at night; she has a “maybe boyfriend,” who is also under suspicion for subversive behavior; and the Milkman (who is not a milkman at all) begins to stalk her in increasingly threatening ways.  Already a pariah, the community concludes that Middle Sister is having an affair with this 42-year old, military man.

Burns weaves humor into the novel. Her running partner is “Third Brother-in-Law.” “First Sister” married the wrong man and is miserable and remote from the family. Her mother is comically critical of her supposed exploits with the Milkman. There is even another “milkman” who is a real milkman and who eventually figures into the mother’s love life. Burns has the most fun with “wee sisters,” her three younger sisters who are highly gifted and curious.

The book has stylistic idiosyncrasies that take some getting used to. The use of ordinal numbers rather than names is fun, but you may find yourself wishing for a name or two. The book is written in stream-of-consciousness narrative – much simpler and easier to follow than James Joyce’s – but still requiring focus.

Interesting and unique, this book is highly recommended by literary critics and on social media. I loved it.

~ Leslie