Anna Burns, Faber & Faber, 2018, ISBN 978-0-571-33874-0, 348pp
I have not read either of Anna Burns’ previous two novels. This one, Milkman, however, won the Man Booker Prize just recently and that, at £50,000 is a serious matter. As Burns herself says “It’s nice to feel I’m solvent.” She wrote this book in circumstances that sound eerily similar to J K Rowling when she wrote the Harry Potter novels. Struggling, no money, all that stuff. It might sound romantic, you know, brilliant artist overcomes adversity to produce a classic. It’s not romantic. It’s especially not romantic then to have your manuscript turned down by several publishers. Fortunately for us, eventually someone took this novel on.
Having said that, I have to say that this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. I can usually knock off a 350-page novel in three or four days. This one took over a week. It is not the subject matter that led to this protracted reading period. The novel is set in some unnamed place, but which is clearly Belfast, in the 1970s. Your history will tell you that this is in the middle of The Troubles. It was a time of intense factionalism in Northern Ireland. One might say that the result of factionalism is silliness. Factionalism is rarely rational because it depends upon creating and maintaining barriers that any sensible human knows are indefensible. That factionalism is the backdrop to the novel and while it defines the events in the novel it is not the main theme.
The central thread of the story concerns a young woman, she is 18, and the unwanted attentions of the 41-year-old Milkman of the title. What makes the book a difficult though ultimate rewarding read is that the characters (with one or two minor exceptions) do not have names. We don’t know the name of the Milkman. Our heroine has older sisters and younger sisters. The younger sisters are the “wee sisters” and when they are referred to individually, they are called eldest wee sister, middle wee sister and youngest wee sister. The heroine’s boyfriend is referred to as long-term boyfriend. This might sound confusing but it works rather better than you might suppose.
The reason the book took a long time to read is that it is written almost as a stream of consciousness. If you are used to the average Irish person, then this is meat and drink. We have an Irish friend who I am convinced is in training for the talking without stop at the 2020 Olympics. I also listen to a podcast called The Blindboy Podcast (this week he talks to Bernadette Devlin (anyone remember her?)) which is often a stream of consciousness. But you can forgive that accent almost anything. But back to The Milkman … where there is narrative it is written in line with the prose but in the main any narrative is written as reported speech. This means that the pages of the book present themselves as slabs of writing which is somewhat confronting. There is less white space than is usual in a novel but getting down to read the book is rewarding. It is also, in parts, very funny. One piece that appealed to me was a description about finishing a phone call. It reads “they said goodbye which took another five minutes because kind people here, not used to phones, not trustful of them either, didn’t want to be rude or abrasive by hanging up after just one goodbye in case each other’s leave-taking was still travelling its way, with a delay, over the airwaves towards them. Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘bye’, ‘bye’, ‘goodbye, son-in-law’, ‘goodbye, mother-in-law’, ‘goodbye’, ‘goodbye’, ‘bye’, ‘bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone.” It reminded me of my Mother.
This is a great book, worthy I suspect of the Man Booker Prize, but it is not an easy read. It may not be up there with Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon or Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet for needing hard work on the part of the reader. I would say it is more like Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand or The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien; you have to work at it, but you get there in the end. Do not buy this if you want a quick read, or if you want a page turner. It’s neither of these but if you are of a literary bent and want to read something that is both brilliant and a little different then this may be for you.