I have read Milkman – I feel like that’s important to state because it has taken me really, really long to do so. I’m grateful to have started it during lockdown, because even though it means I’ve read less in this time, I don’t suspect I could’ve committed as much time to it if I was at work.
It’s difficult, but it’s important that it’s difficult. How it has been written speaks, in some ways, more loudly than what has actually been written. The key to why this book is so sensational is what isn’t said: the names the characters aren’t called in an unidentified city of an unnamed religion. Though despite what isn’t said, we still know exactly where we are and whose side is being narrated.
The hollowed-out spaces between the words echo a feverish hostility which I knew (and probably still know) very little about. Set in the 70s in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, middle-sister is rumoured to be going out with Milkman, a paramilitary renouncer of the state who is not a milkman. The rumours are untrue, but why should that stop them poisoning middle-sister’s life?
We somehow switch from dark and confusing, like the times in which Milkman’s characters are living, to very funny – and sometimes in the same meandering page-long sentence. Anna Burns has stitched a social tapestry: of sexual predation and how it festers within a society with so much physical violence; of the overwhelming power of rumour in an environment which circles the drain of distrust and one-sided narratives; of how successfully othering fuels the desensitisation of whole communities; of love and its misfires; of coming-of-age in a cross-fire.
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