Milkman by Anna Burns

milkman image

Hailing from Northern Ireland myself, I was looking forward immensely to reading this Man Booker Prize winning novel.  I was a little trepidatious however, having read both glowing reviews and this odd criticism of it being ‘hard going.’  Well the reviews I can now agree with, and the idea of it being hard going, I must disagree with.

In saying that, I understand how it came to be said.  Anna Burns writes in such a unique style, and in my humble opinion, there are moments where the stylistic devises take away from the story itself.  She is fond of the repetition of three, long lists of adjectives, in fact long lists of anything.   There are also no names in the book.  Everyone is called by a title, which I thought added greatly to the humour.

The novel is set in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland, where our 18-year-old female narrator lives with her mother and ‘wee sisters.’  She also has three older sisters who are all married and living nearby.   She goes running with third brother-in-law, and life then takes a strange turn when she is followed by a character by the name of Milkman.

We soon come to know that he is a paramilitary and the novel follows our narrator’s journey, as she tries to deal with the unwanted advances of Milkman, as well as contemplating her current life with ‘maybe-boyfriend.’ All this takes place during the many complications of the Troubles which form the constant dangerous undercurrent of this brilliant novel.

She tells us about the ‘beyond-the-pales;’ anyone who doesn’t fit in or follow the rules of the tribe (there are many of them in the town including herself.)  She also describes the different tribes, ‘the renouncers,’ and the ‘issue women’ who hold power in the town.

Violence is part of everyday life:

“The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them.”

There is plenty of humour thoughout, although it is dark humour indeed, but I found myself laughing out loud many times.  There are also plenty of incredibly touching moments throughout the novel, where there is hope that light and love can replace the utter darkness of the time.

The writing is sublime.  It is ironic, black, harsh and yet gentle too.  Honestly it is hard to describe its nuances and cadences.  Just read it and weep at its brilliance.

I adored this book.  There were several lovely moments between the main character and her mother and wee sisters, not to mention her third brother-in-law.

I felt frustrated and yet completely understood how and why our heroine felt powerless to change her situation, always wondering how bad it was going to get.   No spoilers so can’t say anymore than that!

I highly recommend this novel.  I could read it again and I intend to. I will probably get a whole lot more from it the second or third time around.  It is not light reading but oh, (sighs with sheer pleasure) it is so worth it.  Divine.



4 thoughts on “Milkman by Anna Burns

  1. Hi Justine Just this minute finished Milkman. It was for our book club but as you know I was in NZ and missed it. Need to tell someone and you obviously loved it too!! I wanted to slap Dwight Garner ( only the literal editor of the NY Times) for his slaggy review. So good Justine, I loved the use of many words/ phrases to describe the same ideas, like a thesaurus. Scientific in her clarity of ideas / thoughts and always bringing them round and into conclusion, even if you had to wait awhile…… I suppose I felt very much part of the times as, although sheltered in my over the road girls grammar mostly, I did attend the tech aged 18 (1974/5) and hung out with a few characters from that end of town; mother would be appalled!! We listen to Newstalk on Irish radio on the way to Portsalon and my mind boggles at the amount of wordiness on the most trivial ( my view only!) of topics. It’s a very Irish, lovable trait. However ganchy Milkman is, it is dead serious and rings true though also blackly funny! I will definitely read it it again as I was gripped and raced though it this time, but I think it would be awesome on audible! Thanks for listening, I plan to use your list of books to read this year, now I am RETIRED!!!!! I so love getting completely enrapt in a good, wise book. Soon time for a visit up here … maybe? Or…I should really take a trip to a Dublin!!!

    Lots of love to you and Conor Lynne xxxoooxxx

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Hey Lynne. Thanks so much for your thoughts re Milkman. I am so glad you enjoyed it! Really interesting to get your take on it as someone who spent time there. I’m sure there was some aspects you could completely identify with as well.
      Loved your comment re Newstalk…..they sure do love to talk down here! I love it too and listen all the time, although sometimes have to tune out in order to keep the sanity intact!
      You are welcome to stay down here anytime. We could have a night out with Tanya. We went to see Calendar Girls. It was fabulous! Take Care. J. x.


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