Milkman by Anna Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If Franz Kafka had been born in Northern Ireland, as a woman, and lived during ‘The Troubles’ of the 1970s, he would have written this novel. Anna Burns has, in effect, written ‘The Trial’ for a modern generation with all the maddening, fatalistic certainty and bizarrely improbable but oh-so-true-to-life characters met along the way.
Ostensibly, this is about a young teenage woman forced into a relationship with an older man (the ‘milkman’ of the title’) in the setting of the tribalistic times of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and trapped between those who support ‘those over the water’ and those who fight against them.
Yes, it is about these things on a surface level, but Burns’ novel is something much, much more. If you’re not Irish (and I’m not) there’s a good chance that ‘The Troubles’ means little to you. I was affected only tangentially from growing up in the 70s and 80s and seeing the news reports on TV. The closest I got to really touching all of this was when I was in my first proper job in Leicester and an IRA bomb went off round the corner from me. I thought I’d broken the office photocopier having pressed the copy button at exactly the same time the explosion happened. I was, clearly, never in danger. The Troubles were just background noise. So why does ‘Milkman’ resonate with me?
I think the novel does so because this was, and still is, the story of ‘every-town’. What the unnamed teenage character experiences in general in the book I went through in a coal-mining Midlands town during the same period while the strikes decimated the area. The cumbrian town I live near now probably experienced similar. It is the way the community twists and tears at individuals, shaping them and forcing them into conformity even if the the look of that is to make them ‘beyond the pale’. Just like Joseph K in Kafka’s classic, Burn’s protagonist is an innocent, oblivious to any wrongdoing and yet that doesn’t matter. Once the gossip machine has started, it doesn’t end and there’s no escaping it. If the community wants you to be bad, then you’ll be bad.
In my work around the globe I’ve come to appreciate different perspectives on community and the individual. The western way of thinking champions the individual over their perceived responsibilities to others. You can be anything you want to be, we are told, just believe in yourself and don’t listen to others. In other parts of the world – where to go it alone means hardship and even death – the opposite is true – who you are is made from who others are to you. The motto is: I am because you are. In Burns’ novel this communal thinking is inverted and soured. You are because we say you are – this is the motto of the community here; and it is true of all western towns, I suspect.
The result is the ever-increasing fragmentation of society because once you are the stereotype people want you to be you can’t escape it and there’s no point trying. Instead, like this girl here, you acquiesce, capitulate and become what they say and in doing so remove yourself – at least emotionally – from that very same community.
Burns’ character may not physically end up the same way as Kafka’s Joseph K but internally the result is absolutely the same and what makes this such an horrific work to read is that you know it’s coming. The fatalism is relentless.
Yet somehow, the depressing nature of the society described makes for compelling reading. Anna Burns has, incredibly. managed to make a story which is a joy to read. It’s partly the curious way she writes, especially when listing things (I wonder if the word ‘also’ occurs more frequently in ‘Milkman’ than in any other novel?) and partly the quirky way none of the characters have their real names given; it’s ‘Milkman’, ‘Real Milkman’, ‘Maybe Boyfriend’ and ‘Somebody McSomebody’ and so on. If this is Kafka reborn then he’s found a sense of irony and comic timing. But it is also the way she accurately and convincingly captures the way others wheedle into your head and can convince you black is white.
In my experience it is rare that a modern book is worth all the hype it receives. Booker Prizes etc can often mean establishment blandness; a writer with an eloquent turn of phrase managing to tap into something which is currently in vogue. Anna Burns is not one such writer. She’s a unique voice even when speaking of something so mundane, real and earthy as those days in Northern Ireland.
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Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
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Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 4.5 million times.