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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Review: Anna Burns Milkman




Now I couldn’t have made it up and you couldn’t have made it up which is two reasons why Milkman ought to have won the Man Booker Prize, which it did and no thanks to the prognosticators who said that it couldn’t and wouldn’t but it did so there’s justice in the world even if it is a rare thing and not to go unnoticed which this book won’t because now there will be a lot of construing of it, not that the construers will be any better than the prognosticators.

This is an excellent book even at a fairly demanding 348 pages and ten or twelve hours of my time and I don’t know about yours. The temptation will be to reduce it, annex it, to preferred themes which already existed before it was written and so it didn’t really need to be written except to illustrate those themes which it does. The smarter move is to avoid the reduction and look at what the author does and does not do.

First, the author sustains a hypnotic style which is original, quirky and a bit cracked, a bit demented and in order to give voice to a narrator who is all those things. But in case you should think the author  at one with her narrator, the author supplies the narrator with a sense of humour which could not at all belong to someone a bit cracked, a bit demented but is just very funny but of course in a way which is quirky, a bit cracked, a bit demented but does make you laugh so that really the author must be completely sane and thus in full control of whatever insanity her narrator may or may not evince which in any case is rather less insanity than manifested by the cast of characters assembled around her, notwithstanding their bogus claims to greater sanity.

Second, in anonymising place and characters – the city does not have a name and nor do any of the significant characters – the author succeeds in escaping from direct social history and political commentary, turning her very small geographical enclave– a few Catholic streets of one city Belfast – into that grain of sand in which we can see the whole world. This is where she may remind you of Kafka (mentioned once in the novel) and reminded me a bit of Ishiguro who also likes to abstract from precise details of time and place in order to produce something more let’s say imagined and leaving to the imagination.

Third, in addition to the claustrophobic band of core characters – the narrator, her ma, her maybe boyfriend, Milkman, real milkman, … who are locked in different ways into their world of perpetual conflict, the author who knows about Greek and Roman things, provides a contrast, a counterpoint, a chorus maybe in two grouped sets of characters: the narrator’s own wee sisters who are on some other planet entirely based on shrewd child understanding of the planet currently on offer, and later in the narrative the issues women, early 1970s second wave feminists, also as if on another planet where the issues are different to those recognised by the host community which they baffle. Both wee sisters and the issues women provide a great deal of the laughter which this book will yield.

Well, I don’t want to do a plot summary. The book is well-worth reading. I would have made it shorter and I would have very occasionally been a bit more careful about anachronism writing now about the 1970s. But read it, go with its flow, and don’t plonk it into one of the moulds insisted upon now by those always with us wanting to make our worlds claustrophobic, as if novels are written to illustrate trending hashtags. *

* Added 13 December 2018: As if to disagree, here is Writing Magazine (January 2019) commenting on the work of  "bestselling Irish novelist" Celia Ahern: "the stories, written with charm,kindness and empathy, are well-timed for the #MeToo climate" (page 16)

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