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Review of 'Milkman' by Anna Burns

Winner of the Man Booker 2018

Set during The Troubles conflict in Northern Island, Milkman follows an unnamed 18-year-old girl as she navigates through her neighbourhood that's run by paramilitaries who impose sets of rules on the citizens that make fitting in with the crowd extremely important.

Our main character doesn't fit in with the crowd, she doesn't want to be married off to just anyone, she reads 18th century novels whilst walking around dangerous areas, and she's rumoured to be having an affair with the milkman, who isn't actually a milkman, but a renouncer of the state who is double her age and married. Unfortunately, she doesn't notice that she's considered one of the helpless members of society until it's too late. Her reading whilst walking is considered to be her not practicing self-preservation in a world where bombs could be present at any time, and her refusing to acknowledge the milkman rumours is taken for haughtiness, rather than a refusal to let people close to the truth.

From reading Milkman, it's clear that a huge amount work and effort went into crafting this story, and this is what contributed to its Man Booker win. The characters are believable, complex, and full of surprises. None of the characters having names takes some getting used to, but this only adds to the mystery and nonsense of the rules imposed on society to warn against informers. An example of this is when several characters are harmed or killed by the people claiming to be protecting them for being mistaken for the milkman, and visits to the hospital are prohibited. This puts lives at risk, but it's seen as more important to follow these rules.

A lot of this book is the main character explaining why she must act a certain way to appease her nosey neighbours and the renouncers of the state, but this doesn't help her in any way and she is still subject to rumours and gossip about her imaginary affair with a man who is pursuing her. Interestingly, she is the one criticized by society, and not much is said about the milkman for his behaviour.

The milkman himself, whilst only appearing every so often for a short amount of time, is one of the strongest creation in this book. The fact that he actually appears so little just adds to his mystery, and you learn more about him through what other characters think and feel. You're never told explicitly why he chooses our main character to pursue, but he does so in the creepiest way possible.

The other strong point of this book is the character of the man who didn't love anybody, also known as the real milkman. As mentioned before the milkman is not actually a milkman, so naturally there's a real milkman who delivers milk. His story tells you most about the time, and through him we learn a lot about the older characters, and the things they have done to survive. The real milkman and the older women of the area are the only ones brave enough to stand up to the renouncers by using their large numbers and clever tactics to escape the harsh punishments for going against the rules.

The only criticism of this book is that it comprises seven chapters within its 350 pages, with chapter three being over 100 pages long. This makes picking the book back up difficult, as the end of a chapter allows previously learned information to be committed to memory. Without these chapters, I found myself forgetting information, especially with a main character so able to go off on a tangent for 30 pages.

Overall, Milkman is a lesson in good storytelling about the eccentricities of a paranoid population during times of political unrest. It's certainly not an easy read, but the effort of reading it is rewarded by beautiful writing.

Check out my other reviews on my profile. 

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Review of 'Milkman' by Anna Burns
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