by Chris Bertram on February 24, 2020

Sometimes you are reading a novel and it is so extraordinary that you think, is this the best thing I have ever read? For me, that feeling probably comes on about once a year, so there are quite a lot of books that have evoked it. Still, that they do says something, and the latest to have sparked it is Anna Burns’s Milkman, the Booker Prize winner from 2018.

Milkman is, all at once, a tremendous linguistic performance, a triumph of phenomenology, am insightful account of sexual harrassment, a meditation on gossip and what it can do, a picture of the absurdities of enforced communitarian conformity, and a clear-eyed portrayal of what it is to live under the occupation of a foreign army and the domination of the necessary resisters to that army who are, at the same time, friends and family, sometime idealists but sometimes gangsters, bullies and killers.

Anna Burns’s sentences, the stream of consciousness of her 18-year-old narrator, loop back on themselves with further thoughts and reconsiderations. The voice is a combination of personal idiosyncracy and northern Irish English, i.e. comprehensible to speakers of other versions of English but sometimes odd or disconcerting. You can’t skim and get the plot. You have to hold on, read each sentence, and sometime start it again.

Very few of the characters or persons mentioned have real names (I count two). Instead we are treated to maybe-boyfriend, chef (who isn’t a chef), ma, da, wee sisters, eldest sister, third brother-in-law, longest friend, Somebody McSomebody, wrong husband (a few of those) and so on. The town or city is not named, though it would be surprising if it were not Belfast. There is a statelet, a state “over the water”, another “over the border”, the state forces and police, and the renouncers (locals who renounce the state in question) and the defenders (locals who defenders). The people in the enclave where the narrator lives are of one religion and the renouncers hold off both the state forces and those of the defenders, who are of the “opposite religion”. Many people have died, including nearly whole families, because of the political problems. Some are killed by state forcers or defenders, but others, suspected or accused of being informers, by the renouncers. The renouncers depend on the good opinion of the community who thereby exercise some constraint on their power. While the location is what it is, one imagines similar dynamic being played out on West Bank and Gaza, in parts of Syria, in Colombia, in Baghdad, in Kabul, in Kashmir.

I’ll not spoil the plot for those who haven’t read the book, beyond saying what we know from the first page, that the central theme is the unwanted and menacing sexual attention of Milkman to the narrator, who is not a milkman but a fairly senior figure in the paramilitary renouncers. Milkman does and says very little, but communicates, without saying much, what may happen if she doesn’t comply with his plans for her. The very depiction of that dynamic between them and how he gets in her head is chilling. You should read it for yourself but.



odaiwai 02.24.20 at 1:48 pm

“You should read it for yourself but.”

Norn Iron. What about ye?


Roland Stone 02.24.20 at 10:04 pm


Chris Bertram 02.24.20 at 10:14 pm

Yes I read that Garner NYT review and I thought that Garner should be fired and sent to manage a power station in Siberia.


roger gathmann 02.25.20 at 6:10 pm


stephen 02.25.20 at 7:33 pm

Chris: I’ve not yet read it, but it seems well worth reading.

Two points.

You say, very possibly rightly, that it shows “what it is to live under the occupation of a foreign army and the domination of the necessary resisters to that army”. Query whether if an united Ireland had come about despite the objections of Unionists in NI, and had been imposed by the Irish army, would you have considered resisters as “necessary”? Despite their no doubt deplorable and sometimes loathsome “domination”?

Als0: you write of “a foreign army”. But I thought that the whole point of the open-borders movement is that there are in reality no foreigners?


Chris Bertram 02.25.20 at 8:08 pm

@stephen, I’m conveying the perspective of the inhabitants of an unnamed enclave according to a narrator in a work of fiction, I’m not expressing a personal view about the Provisional IRA.


CP Norris 02.25.20 at 10:47 pm

I am glad I read Milkman but maybe more as an achievement than as an enjoyable experience. It’s very good but maybe not good enough to merit that level of difficulty. The comparison to Ulysses comes to mind almost constantly.


Stephen 02.28.20 at 7:13 pm

CB: dead right, your personal view about the Provisional IRA is entirely irrelevant to an appreciation of this novel (though I suspect it would overlap with mine). I’ve not read the book yet but am happy to take your word that it’s worth reading.

What may be relevant, I think, is your use here of “foreign” as a term of disapprobation, which in the context of immigration – where I believe, perhaps mistakenly, you are in favour of open borders – would be something you might find intolerable.

Over to you.

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