Ropes Book Awards: Heather's Pick
Faber & Faber 2018
The Milkman Cometh
Forget everything you thought you knew about life in the North during the Troubles. Anna Burns’s novel transports the reader there, not only in terms of time and place, but of head and heart. Milkman is narrated by an 18-year-old who attracts local attention for two reasons: she reads while she walks and THE milkman fancies her. In any other setting neither of these two details would seem notable but in this unnamed town, in 1970s Northern Ireland, they are deadly.
In the tradition of Leopold Bloom, the story follows our narrator’s interior monologue as she walks through the micro-universe of her neighbourhood. Welcome to the mental landscape of no paragraphs. Or chapters. You’ll be relieved to hear there are full stops and, by God, you will cherish them. The intensity of the writing is cut with wry humour and a casual tone that encourages keeping up with, or rather within, the narrator’s physical and mental wanderings. The interior monologue of Burns’s protagonist is so absorbing that interruptions from other characters creep up like an unexpected tap on the shoulder.
By populating her novel with nameless characters, Burns presents a world where identity, even a name itself, is a liability. Instead, characters are referred to by their roles within the community, or in relation to the narrator: maybe-boyfriend, eldest sister, tablets girl. The result communicates the setting with photographic realism: life in a close-knit community stitched together by silence, acquiescence and fear. The mind-set of people forced to live under the constant shadow of terrorism is revealed with a nuance that demonstrates the author’s keen insight.
Anna Burns’s unforgettable novel, though firmly structured within its historical setting, transcends time. It is a story of being a young woman in a world controlled by men. It is a story of how people survive violence and oppression. It is the story of now.