Category Archives: Book prizes

Washington Black Travels To Freedom [BookReview]

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Did you love adventure stories as a child?

Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.

Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.

Flight To Freedom

The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator.  As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.

It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.

How Does It Feel To Be Free?

Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.

As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

Journey To Understanding

The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.

For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.

I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.

What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.

Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

3 Booker Prize Winners Worth Re-Reading

There were a number of Booker Prize winning novels I read before I began this blog and my project to work my way through all the winners. As I’m approaching the end of that project I thought I’d write some short reviews of those pre-blog books.

I seldom re-read contemporary fiction (I don’t know why, but the classics seem to lend them selves far more to re-reading. ) But these are three that I would definitely consider reading a second time.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending: Booker Prize winner 2011

This 2011 Booker Prize winner was my first experience of Julian Barnes .

It’s a slim novel, beautifully paced and very readable yet it gets you thinking about some of the issues well after you reachthe last page.

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired man of around 60 years old. He reflects on his life and in particular his relationship with Adrian Finn, a boy he met at school. Adrian was the most intellectually advanced and gifted boy in his coterie.

But a rather odd girl called Veronica comes between them. Tony takes her defection to Adrian badly, heaping curses upon the pair. And then he learns Adrian has killed himself.

Years later Adrian’s diary is bequeathed to Tony. He believes it will unlock the mystery of why Adrian died. But first he will have to do battle with Veronica.

This is very much a reflective novel about a man who is trying to make sense of his life. His frustrations and anger come to the fore but so too does regret and his feeling of being on the fringe of life. “You just don’t get it. You never will.” is the barb Veronica most frequently throws at him. Tony does have a selective memory however and even by the end you feel that he is still a puzzle to himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a compact novel which meditates on the complexity of the human struggle to deal with regret and loss.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Blind Assassin: Booker Prize Winner 2000

Until I read this 2000 Booker Prize winner, my only experience with Margaret Atwood was through The Handmaids’ Tale. Although there is a sci fi aspect to The Blind Assassin, it couldn’t have been more different.

It has a complicated structure with three plot strands and multiple time frames.

The over-arching device is that this book is the memoir of Iris Chase, from her beginning as the daughter of a prosperous family, through a loveless marriage and into solitary and brooding old age. As she nears the end of her life she is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family.

Her younger sister Laura killed herself in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war. Iris published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin posthumously. a decision which propelled Laura to fame but Iris to a life of isolation.

Interposed with Iris’s reminiscences are passages from that novel,  about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings. 

Confused?? It’s not surprising.

Reading this novel is a giddy experience. We get Iris’ narrative, Laura’s novel, extracts from the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura’s book tells his lover and newspaper reports on events.

In the hands of a less able novelist, this mix of narrative forms would be a mess. But Atwood handles it with authority and aplomb. It’s quite an extraordinary novel.

 

Amsterdam : A Novel by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam : Booker Prize winner 1998

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize with his story of a euthanasia pact between a composer and a newspaper editor that ultimately destroys their long-term friendship.

It’s rather a dark novel from the beginning which takes place at a funeral where the two men agree that if one of them is left helpless by a medical condition, the other will ease his exit from this world.

The rest of the novel sees each man take decisions with far-reaching consequences. The editor publishes private photographs revealing a political scandal. The composer leaves the scene of a rape because he can’t waste time when he has a symphony to finish.

This is a novel which reads like a psychological thriller at times; particularly in the final chapters in Amsterdam where the friends meet for a show-down. But it’s the way the novel deals with moral ambiguities that I enjoyed the most.

I read Amsterdam in 2000 and it’s one of my favourite novels by Ian McEwan. It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I think warrants a second read.

Booker Prize 2019: Hit Or Miss? What The Experts Think

Booker Prize longlist 2019

It’s Booker Prize season once more. The 2019 longlist was announced this week, triggering a process that will end on October 14 when the winner will pick up their £50,000 cheque.

It all felt very familiar. 

But there was one thing different this year. 

The judges made their usual remarks about the diversity and richness of the novels submitted for consideration. And, as so often in the past, they described their experience of reading 151 novels as  “exhilarating.”  It’s not my idea of exhilaration but perhaps that’s why I’ve never had the call inviting me to become a Booker Prize judge. 

There was no controversy about the longlist. 

No complaints about the imbalance between male and female authors. 

No complaints that the judges were dumbing down the prize, trading literary experimentation and creativity for re-readability and popularity

And no complaints that the prize was becoming dominated by American authors at the expensive of those from Commonwealth countries. 

The reaction to the longest announcement was in fact rather muted. 

Booker Prize: Reactions from Experts

What’s all the fuss about?

The surprise about this year’s Booker longlist? That for the first time in years, there are few surprises.

Justine Jardin, The Guardian

Justin Jardin’s reaction encapsulated the responses of many literary editors and arts editors who work for national newspapers around the world.

The longlist … is ever so woke-flavoured; it’s very Hackney book club. It’s solid … but it lacks thrillers.


Robbie Millen, Literary Editor , The Times

Reading these articles I got the feeling that journalists were struggling to make a decent story out of the Booker Prize longlist.

The mystery novel

A number of them like Alex Marshall, European culture correspondent for the New York Times, homed in on the one book on the list which is a mystery.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, doesn’t get released until after the shortlist is announced on May 3.

“….its contents and plot are a closely guarded secret. Little is known except that it is set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale and is narrated by three female characters. 

Alex Marshall, New York Times

According to The Guardian, the Booker Prize judges were so constrained by “a ferocious non disclosure agreement’ that they couldn’t give any details about plot, setting or characters. All they could say was :

… it’s terrifying and exhilarating.

Big names dominate

Several of the editors focused on the presence of previous award winners, like Margaret Atwood, in the longlist.

Booker Prize 2019 longlist
Authors featured in the Booker Prize 2019 longlist

Irish News speculated that Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker Prize almost four decades ago could win again. His novel Quichotte, which is published in August, is described a picaresque road trip through contemporary America and was inspired by Don Quixote.

Other newspapers highlighted that this will be the third nomination in a row for Deborah Levy. Her novel The Man Who Saw Everything, contains two versions of the same story.

Although the list is packed with the names of well established authors, only The Guardian mentioned some notable omissions such as Ian McEwan, Mark Haddon and Ali Smith all of whom had well received novels published within the eligibility period.

Weighing in at 1,000 pages

It was the inclusion of Lucy Ellman on the Booker Prize longlist that caught the attention of Anita Singh of The Daily Telegraph.

If you’re looking for a long read, the Booker Prize has just the thing.

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, consists of a single sentence running over 1,000 pages. It is the interior monologue of an Ohio housewife … a stream-of-consciousness written without paragraphs or full stops.

The 426,100-word sentence is broken only a handful of times, 

Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph

As if anticipating the eyebrow raising and pursed lips that would greet Ellmann’s inclusion, Anita Singh quoted the judges’ comments about how readable people will find this book.

The thing to know is that it’s extremely funny. So although it looks very dense and worrying on the page, actually every single page is full of puns and jokes. And there is a plot in there

Joanna MacGregor, Booker Prize judge

The nationality game

Every year the announcement of the prize is followed by an analysis of its geographic diversity.

After the rule change in , there were complaints that there were too many American authors selected, which was unfair to authors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc

We didn’t get that reaction this year , largely because American authors were noticeable for their absence.

As David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent for The Times, noted, there is only one American on the longlist (Lucy Ellman) and she moved to UK as a teenager.

The list will go some way to appeasing British publishers who last year wrote to the Booker trustees to object to the broadening of entry criteria  to include American authors

David Sanderson, The Times

Patriotism did however rear its head. The Irish Times (of course) led its Booker story with the fact local boy Kevin Barry had been chosen for Night Boat to Tangier. They’re no doubt hoping 2019 will see Barry emulate the success of last year’s winner, Belfast-born Anna Burns

There was cause for celebration in Africa however with the inclusion of two Nigerian authors and another whose work explores the African disaspora. The Johannesburg Review of Books, was obviously nursing old wounds since they couldn’t resist mentioning the absence of any African authors on the list for the past two years.

And the winner is???

None of the journalists at this stage are predicting a winner or even what will make it to the shortlist on September 3. In any case, history has shown us that it isn’t always the favourite that walks off with the prize.

If you enjoy a little speculation, take a look at the Booker Prize 2019 longlist discussion board at Goodreads where the members of the Mookse and Gripes group are voting for their favourites.

I’m definitely underqualified to give my own predictions because, for the first time since I started my Booker Prize project, I’ve not read even one of the longlisted titles.

But if you have, then do post a comment below with your reactions and comments.

Booker Prize Longlist 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – Canada– (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – Ireland– (Canongate Books)

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Nigeria – (Atlantic Books)

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – USA/UK – (Galley Beggar Press)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

The Wall by John Lanchester – UK– (Faber & Faber)

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – Mexico/Italy– (4th Estate)

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria– (Little Brown)

Lanny by Max Porter – UK– (Faber & Faber)

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –UK/India– (Jonathan Cape)

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – UK/Turkey – (Viking)

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson –UK– (Jonathan Cape)

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

The Salt Path

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor Winn has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.


The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

An American Marriage fails to do justice to injustice [review]

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American MarriageAn American Marriage was on multiple “must read” lists the year it was published.

Former US President Barak Obama apparently said it was one of his favourite books of the year. Jones then achieved the Holy Grail when her novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (inclusion in which is guaranteed to generate a major hike in sales).

The novel subsequently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. 

What seems to have appealed most is the way An American Marriage tackles the effects of racial injustice but from perspective of how it threatens to destroy a relationship. The Women’s Prize for Fiction judges called it an “exquisite” novel, “a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. “

The relationship in focus is that of Celestial and Roy. They are a young middle-class African-American couple who’ve been married for a year.

There have been some ups and downs as in all marriages, or as Celestial describes it, their marriage is “a fine spun tapestry, fragile but fixable.”  Generally though life is looking pretty good.

Roy’s a sales rep for a textbook company and seems to have a promising career ahead of him. She’s an artist specialising in custom-made baby dolls and hoping to open her own shop.

It takes just 15 minutes one night to turn all their plans upside down.

On a trip to visit his parents in Louisiana, they spend the night at a motel. They argue, he goes outside to cool off but is back in 15 minutes. Later that night police break down the door of their room and haul Roy into custody on charge of raping a fellow guest. He’s sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Incarceration for a crime both know Roy did not commit, puts the marriage under strain. When he’s freed eventually he’s ready to pick up the marriage where they left off. But Celestial has found love in another quarter.

Wrongful conviction

Jones sets a fast pace at the start of An American Marriage.

One chapter is all it takes to get Roy into jail. There’s no time wasted on recounting his arrest, questioning by police or a trial. Instead we get drawn straight into the effect this wrongful conviction has on the young people.

Jones relates this through three narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, a childhood friend who later becomes something more. A large proportion of the early narrative comes in the form of letters exchanged between Celestial and Roy.

And that was where I experienced my first difficulty with this book.

Flaws in An American Marriage

The letters simply didn’t feel authentic to me because the writing style is belaboured. It would be far more natural for a twenty-something year old to write  “I’ve never seen even seen one” rather than “I have never ….” or to say “then I’d know” rather than “then I would know what to do….”   Roy’s letters in particular  felt like correspondence to a stranger rather than to a wife.

When we discussed this at a book club meeting, a few members commented that the stilted style probably reflects the fact Roy knows that prisoners’ letters are vetted. It’s a fair point but I still found these letters irritating at times.

Equally irritating was the author’s tendency to include platitudes throughout the book. This one for example:

“A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.”

Or how about

“Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree  stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition…”

Commentary on race and injustice

On one level An American Marriage is intended as a state-of-the-nation kind of book; a commentary on race and justice in twenty-first century America.  It’s clear that Roy’s ethnicity plays a significant part in the miscarriage of justice he experiences. On another level it’s an examination of what happens when a marriage is put to the severest of tests.

Initially both are hopeful about the future and try hard to keep things as they were. Celestial wants to recount word for word, their last conversation before his arrest so that “we can pick up where we left off.” But their optimism wanes, the affection dwindles and  bitterness sweeps in. The question in the final chapters is whether the marriage can ever be put back together.

An American Marriage has many of the elements that would make for an excellent piece of fiction but it never delivers. The injustice issue is never explored to any depth so we’re left to focus on the marriage and the individuals within that relationship. Interesting but not rivetting.

I can understand why this book has resonated with many readers. But I don’t think it’s special enough  to have won the Women’s Prize. Certainly not when the truly remarkable novel  Milkman by Anna Burns is in the frame.

Tayari Jones: Key Facts  

  • Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • She is currently a member of the English faculty at Emory University in the city.
  • She had three novels published before An American Marriage.
  • Her  debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, was written when she was a graduate student. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. 
  • Her second novel The Untelling and her third Silver Sparrow are  also set in Atlanta.

Intense novel shows a city in turmoil: Milkman by Anna Burns [Review]

Milkman by Anna Burns

 

The Troubles in Ireland

Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.

Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.

Where masked  paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.

Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.

We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.

She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.

Dangerous to read and walk

Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books.   She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property.  He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.

Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.

A City in Turmoil

Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population  fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.  Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”  Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.

It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’

But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.

Powerful voice of narrator

The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman

Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a  Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of  a creepy stalker.  She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”

It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure.   It’s certainly unconventional.  It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.


Milkman: Key Facts

Milkman by Anna Burns

  • Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
  • The Chair of the Booker judges,  Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous;  beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
  • Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019

Anna Burns: Key Facts 

  • Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones. 
  • She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
  • She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.

Why I read Milkman

Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.

It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

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