‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

I may have chosen to read this book even if it hadn’t been chosen by my Book Club. It is a story from the ‘Troubles’ in Belfast told 51Oyp+6sFzL._SL500_by a young woman from the republican side of the divide. As I grew up in Lanarkshire, in Central Scotland, where sectarian bigotry was rife; where we had red, white and blue painted unionist kerbstones on the pavements; where “F.T.P.” and “1690 ya bas” were sprayed on many gable ends; and where most childhood encounters started with the far-from-innocent question “What school do you go to?”; this is a period that captures my attention. So even had it not been chosen by the Book Club I would probably have started to read it. However, it is only because of the book club that I persevered.

Milkman, by Anna Burns,  was the book which won the Man Booker prize this year. It tells the tale of “middle sister” and her “maybe boyfriend” and their experiences in Belfast in the 1970’s. The places are never named though it is very obvious where they are. The protagonists are never clearly stated as the I.R.A., U.V.F. or British Army but are always easily identifiable. Indeed no character is named in the story, all are ‘named’ by descriptive terms such as, “maybe boyfriend”, “tablets girl”, “the international couple”, “third brother in law” and so on. This latter idiosyncrasy does wear thin after while but surprisingly it does help the story flow. I used to find when reading Russian sagas I’d be thinking “Which Anatolya is this one ? Is this Sergei’s wife or Anastasia’s sister ? ” This does not happen in this book there is never any mistaking who is “the real milkman” as opposed to “the milkman”. Indeed this was an interesting quirk which did give the character of overhearing gossip or hearsay to the novel.

The problem I had with the book was twofold. Firstly the writing is densely packed. A stream of consciousness oozes out with sentences extending over ten lines before meeting a full stop and paragraphs running over pages. Even just looking at the book it looks dark grey, there is little white space breaking up the text. I found reading this style hard work and fatiguing. Especially as some paragraphs were simply strings of synonyms or repetitions of the same fact slightly differently. It was taxing, tiring, very fatiguing, draining, arduous, exhausting, sapping and sometimes burdensome. There was never any doubt that Anna Burns owned a thesaurus.

After a few days, despite my best intentions, I hade made little progress and was ready, with some misgivings, to abandon the book. But it was the Book Club book and I’d have to discuss it the following week so I had a dilemma. I decided that the best course of action, one that I’d used successfully before,  would be to cheat – I’d listen to the book on Audible.

This was a revelation. After a few minutes I was drawn into the story. The narrator Brid Brennan was simply superb. Her voice, with a clear Northern Irish accent, brought a vitality to the text that I could not see when looking at the printed page. It was akin to sitting on a bus and overhearing a couple, seated behind you, relating a story. It was fascinating to hear despite being rambling, discursive and overinclusive. It really did bring out the paranoia and illogicality of living in sectarian areas in the middle of periods of strife.

It is strange that this book is so different in the two differing media. I could hardly recommend it as a book to be read. But as the script for a radio drama, or other production, I could hardly recommend it strongly enough. At first when I had noted that  it had won the Man-Booker Prize I thought of emperors and their new clothes. I thought perhaps it is a book aimed at writers rather then readers. But having listed to it I realise I was wrong and this clearly is work of a very talented author. I may go back and try and actually “read” the book but I am content to know that I “listened” to it and enjoyed it.