The startling originality delivered by Anna Burns in her novel Milkman more than justifies her win.
And it’s not just the female narrator, known as middle sister, who remains nameless. Everyone else is identified only by social or family position – wee sisters, ma, maybe boyfriend and, centrally and sinisterly, the milkman (sometimes Milkman). The city of the novel is also unnamed, though its divisions, suspicions and casual violence, the references to borders and the place across the water, renouncers and paramilitaries, and the swing and sway of the language, identify it as 1970s Belfast. The 18-year-old protagonist is already dangerously unusual, in a world where compliance and obedience are all, but then come the rumours, started by first brother-in-law, about her and the paramilitary milkman, who is stalking her in his white van. She’s already guilty of other crimes, apart from a disturbing fondness for reading while walking. Longest friend is at pains to explain to her “how no one should go around in a political scene with their head switched off”.
The increasingly threatening and crazy swirl of hearsay, gossip and fabrication is conveyed in many-phrased sentences and extremely long paragraphs. Sometimes you need to take a few deep breaths. But she never loses control and that compelling, clever narrative voice and surreal atmosphere are hard to forget.
This is kind of a map for negotiating terror and prejudice, for surviving in a world where right and wrong are viciously and precisely defined but not always apparent, where anything sane or rational becomes exactly the opposite. It’s also often extremely funny.
“Original” is a sadly overused word, but in this case it’s more than justified. Milkman may have been even more powerful if it were shorter, with some reining in of its headlong style, but it’s a remarkable novel, born of extraordinary talent and imagination. And although Burns takes us to dark places, she never extinguishes hope.
MILKMAN, by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, $32.99)
This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.