Milkman by Anna Burns
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, 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
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith was one of the most popular and widely read 18th-century novels among Victorians.
I wonder what appealed most to them in this tale of the misfortunes that beset a country priest and his family, the humour or its emphasis on the strength of the family as a social institution?
It’s a rather ‘gentle’ comedy about one of life’s innocents, Dr. Charles Primrose, whose blissful family existence is brutally interrupted when the merchant investor to whom he has entrusted his family’s fortune, absconds with all the money. As a consequence his eldest son’s wedding with the daughter of a wealthy family is called off as a consequence. The rest of the family have to move to a more humble parish. Further mishaps follow: fire destroys their new home; a daughter is abducted by a scoundrel squire and a son is thrown into jail accused of involvement in a duel.
What’s so funny about this you might well wonder? It’s certainly not laugh out loud material, rather the kind that just makes you smile as you find Dr Primrose stumble into yet another situation that he doesn’t fully understand.
He’s a kind, good natured and well-meaning kind of man at heart. One whose spirit is dampened, but never extinguished by all the calamaties he experiences. When his money has gone he entreats his family to focus on happiness rather than trappings of gentility and to find “that every situation in life might bring its own particular pleasures.” Nothing gives him more delight than to be surrounded by his family near the fireside and he extols the virtues of married life at every opportunity.
The family is one of the key themes of the novel though Goldsmith also touches on class and gender and of course, faith. Ultimately this is a tale about a man whose devotion to his faith , though tested, doesn’t falter and who is rewarded for such devotion.
Was it an enjoyable book to read?
I was on the point of giving up a few times. I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters or what became of them and I found the moral homilies and sermons irritating. It was rather a dull book I thought and not one I would recommend.
I read it only because it was on my Classics Club list and it coincided with the ReadingIreland month hosted by Cathy at 746books.com
About the book
The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766 though is believed to have been written a few years earlier. According to James Boswell, Goldsmith’s biographer, the author was in some financial difficulties at the time and unable to pay the rent on his accommodation. He asked Samuel Johnson for help, mentioning he had written a book. Johnson sold a share to the bookseller Francis Newbery, enabling Goldsmith to pay off his debts. Newberry then sat on the book for about two years.
About the author
Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish novelist, playwright and poet, whose best known work is The Vicar of Wakefield . If however you went through the UK education system during the 60s and 70s, you may remember being forced to study another of his works: She Stoops to Conquer . That was supposed to be a comedy too but the only reaction I can remember from my classmates is one of groans.
There’s an oft-quoted comment that only the people involved really know what is going in any relationship. In the case of the Gilmores, the key people in Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break, it seems only one of the duo has this insight.
Gerry and Stella Gilmore are taking a short trip to Amsterdam. Gerry thinks they’re going to do the usual tourist activities like visiting Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum. What he doesn’t know is that Stella has an agenda of her own, one in which Gerry plays no part. It transpires that the title of the book refers not merely their long weekend break in Amsterdam, but to the threat of a rupture in their marriage.
As MacLaverty takes us from the perspective of one to the other, it becomes evident to us — if not to the people concerned — how much their marriage is based on familiarity and routine. And on secrets.
Every time they have a lift to themselves, they kiss between floors – it is just a little thing they do. Whenever they’re out walking, they hold hands in case she falls. Each day they share updates on their various aches and pains; a discussion which has become so institutionalised it even has its own name — the Ailment Hour. Stella likes to do crosswords and have an afternoon nap to compensate for her insomnia.
Gerry’s secret pleasure is of the liquid variety. Never happier than when he has a glass of something in his hand. Unless it’s a bottle in his pocket. He thinks he’s being so smart when he hides the glass from her site or slips out of the hotel bedroom at night to hide his empty bottles in a litter bin. But he’s forgotten that Stella’s a smart woman.
She’s been keeping her secret for decades. One that takes the story back to their home land of Ireland during the period of The Troubles. They left the country after Stella was injured in a street shooting incident, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her close shave with death set her on a spiritual path where in her remaining years, she wants to live “a more valuable life” and “make a contribution, however small” to the world. Now, in Amsterdam, she is attempting to fulfil a promise even though that means she must set Gerry aside.
MacLaverty’s attention to detail as he dissects this marriage is evident. Nothing this couple does, however small, seems to escape attention from the packet of Werther’s Originals they share at take-off to the pleated paper wrapping the bar of hotel soap and the colour of spit after red wine.
It was an enjoyable read overall though two factors spoiled it rather. One was that MacLaverty’s unhurried pace and careful attention to each moment of the weekend, sometimes ran away with him. Towards the end of the book for example Gerry reflects on all the things about Stella that he admires. Chief of which is it seems the depth and breadth of her knowledge bank. Not enough to just tell us this, we have to have a list of every single thing that she knows:
She knew that the full name of the Litany recited after the rosary of benediction was th Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She knew that Albert Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman, that farinaceous meant floury when applied to potatoes but that flowery language could not be described as such, as farinaceous… She knew the recipes for mushroom stroganoff and spaghetti carbonara and about forty-two other dishes without looking at a cookery book … Oh and that a Sitzprobe was nothing medical but the rehearsal for an opera.
And on and on this goes. For four whole pages…. Very tiresome indeed and totally unnecessary.
The second aspect that prevented this being an out and out success for me was the premise for Stella’s decision to leave Gerry. We learn that as she lay wounded in Ireland, she prayed that her unborn child would be saved, making a vow that if the child lived she would be in debt to her Lord for the rest of her life. Now in Amsterdam she visits the Begijnhof, home of a Catholic sisterhood, with the intention of fulfilling that vow by taking up residence and living a life of piety and good works. This didn’t ring true for me if she felt that strongly, wouldn’t she have followed through on the promise much earlier – not wait 30 years?
It’s a shame because otherwise this was a good story full of close observation of the reality of life.
About the Author
Bernard MacLaverty comes from Northern Ireland. His novels include Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes (shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize) and The Anatomy School. He has written five books of short stories. Midwinter Break was published in 2017
Why I read this book
It was selected for one of the book clubs I’ve joined. The general reaction was very favourable.
Article: 21st century women writers
My chosen article this week was published by The New York Times to mark Women’s History Month. In Vanguard Books by Women their staff writers considered which women writers in the 21st century are at the helm of new paths in writing. They wanted to identify those women who are opening new realms and whose works ” suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.”
They ended up with a list of 15 books that they considered remarkable. From Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah to Zadie Smith’s NW, Hang Kang’s The Vegetarian and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado which seems to be a curious blend of fantasy, police procedural and horror. They admit the choices are idiosyncratic and there are numerous good books that were not included. Even so some of the selections are strange. Why choose NW when On Beauty or White Teeth were infinitely better? Why not Ali Smith whose How to Be Both surely counts as inventive? And what possessed them to leave out Hilary Mantel who has surely broken the mould for historical fiction?
What do you think – do you agree with the list or think there are some glaring omissions?
Book: The Fisher Child by Philip Casey
A little away day to Dublin this week gave me a good excuse to pop into a bookshop. Just at the point where I had to admit I was lost (despite having a map) I saw Books Upstairs, one of the shops Cathy at 746books recommended, and apparently the oldest independent bookstore in the city. What a friendly team they have in the shop – not only did they put me on the right path to my destination but they shared their deep knowledge of contemporary Irish writers. I could have bought at least half a dozen but I my laptop bag was already too heavy so I had to limit it to just one – a novel by Philip Casey, a writer who was a regular at Books Upstairs until his death in February this year.
This is the blurb:
The Fisher Child is in three parts. In the first, Kate is happily married to Dan, both of them second-generation Irish and comfortable in their middle-class north London lives. They have two children, a boy and a girl, with another one on the way. But when Meg is born, Dan cannot accept her as his child, and retreats to Ireland in bewilderment. In Wexford, his family are partaking in the the bi-centenary commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion, and he learns about his ancestor Hugh Byrne, a rebel who was forced to flee Ireland, presumably to America. Dan will never know what the reader discovers in part two – that Hugh had not settled in America but in the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where he fell in love with Ama, a black slave whose genes have lain hidden in Dan’s family for two centuries.
Blog Post: A stranded reader
Blogger Harriet Devine had a miserable experience recently which she wrote about in this post. It’s a miserable enough experience having your travel documents, credit cards and cash stolen. Add to the misery the fact that you can’t get home until replacement documents are issued (you may be on a warm, sunny Mediterranean island but even paradise palls when you have no money to spend). But imagine having to endure that without anything decent to read! The bookcases in some hotels may be full of paperbacks other visitors have left behind but they are seldom the kind of book I want to read. And so it proved for poor Harriet….
Today’s Bookends post comes from inside my snowy bower in Wales. My village was in the eye of the storm that came through on Thursday, recording the highest snowfall in the country. Though the snow is still coming down it looks as if the road out of the village is now clear. Hope so because after two days confined to barracks I’m getting a little stir crazy. There is only so much baking, eating, reading one can do….
When I relaunched Bookends last week I said that each post would consist of just three things that have caught my attention, aroused my curiosity; stimulated my interest
- a book
- a blog post and
- an article
So let’s kick off this week with a book that has been in my ‘to read’ collection for a very long time. But since it’s International Women’s Day in a few day’s time (March 8), it feels appropriate to highlight a collection that explores the lives of colourful, intrepid women in history.
Book: Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman.
The women who feature in this debut work are creativly impulsive, fiercely independent and sometimes reckless. In They include a cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs, an aviator and writer who lives alone in Nairobi; Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter; Oscar Wilde’s wild niece, Dolly; and James Joyce’s daughter. This is a work of fiction though Megan Bergman based each story on biographical information (sometimes very scanty).
Blog Post: The Emerald Isle beckons
It’s March so it must be time for Reading Ireland month which is hosted by Cathy at 746books.com. It’s easy to take part — you just read something which is related to Ireland. It could be a book by an Irish author, or set in Ireland or characters who are of Irish origin. If you’re stuck for ideas, Cathy has a list of around 100 suggestions on the site. More info can be found on the Reading Ireland announcement page.
Article: Can novels change our attitudes to death?
In an article for Electric Literature, professor John MacNeill Miller asks whether novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo, which deal with the afterlife, can help address our phobia about death.
Maybe not the most uplifting topic for the end of the week but one that got me thinking about death scenes in literature. Two come to mind immediately: Emma Bovary in Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. The first is not how most people would want to spend their final moments on this earth; the second is considerably more traditional though rather sentimental. Have you come across any scenes that are more realistic, neither sentimental nor dwelling on the gruesome?
The ancestral home of Temple Alice might be crumbling and the debts piling up. But for the St Charles family, it’s imperative that appearances are maintained and they uphold the standards of good behaviour befitting the Anglo-Irish gentry. And on the surface they are successful. Papa occupies his time hunting, fishing and generally having a good time with his coterie of female admirers. Mummie is so busy with her gardening and her painting she has no time or patience for all the dull business of housekeeping and child rearing. Daughter Aroon and her younger brother Hubert are consequently left in the care of their beloved governess Miss Brock with whom they swim and picnic joyfully.
It all sounds a halcyon existence. But that’s only on the surface. Time and time again in Good Behaviour a darkness seeps through that is all the more disturbing because it’s so subtly introduced and then glossed over. The tone is set in the opening scene in which Aroon, now a mature woman, prepares a rabbit mousse for her invalid mother’s meal, despite protestations from housemaid Rose that mum gets sick if she eats rabbit. Mother takes one mouthful, is sick. and dies. The result of an error of judgement by a well-meaning daughter or a deliberate act of a woman grown embittered over the years? The reader is left to decide but that episode is already a signal that maybe Aroon is going to prove an entirely unreliable narrator of her story.
The chapters that immediately follow the rabbit episode reinforce our initial impressions that more is going on beneath the surface than first appears. They seem to be series of entertaining anecdotes about Aroon’s childhood in her ancestral country home yet it’s obvious to us, even if it isn’t to her, that she is being largely ignored and starved of affection. Her mother is either distant or dismissive and cruel and her father only seems to pay attention when she is exhibiting her horsemanship even when this results in a near tragic episode where she clings onto a troublesome horse. She is further burdened by her size and shape. She’s tall and full blossomed in a way that is totally out of synch with the fashion in 1920s for slim, boyish figures. To onlookers she looks like a Fat Lady in a peepshow with her “bosoms swinging like jelly bags”.
I have now come to terms with my height but in those years when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees, I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms until they burst out around my back.
Aroon is in essence an outsider. Although there are moments when she feels she’s “there at the heart of things” – like when her brother teaches her to dance and she finds there is something at which she can excel or the evenings when Hubert and his friend Richard invite her for drinks and music in their bedroom. Richard gets into bed with her one night. Though nothing happens sexually, the fact Richard was in her bed is enough for Aroon to believe he is in love with her and to eagerly that anticipate nuptial bliss will follow.
But too soon the dream falls apart. Hubert is killed in a motoring accident and Richard disappears to Kenya. The death of son and heir and the earlier tragedy when Papa lost a leg in the battle fields of World War 1 barely disrupt the routine. For this is a house where every mishap or tragedy is shaken off, never spoken of and never allowed to interrupt the gardening or hunting. “Our good behaviour went on and on. . . no one spoke of the pain.” says Aroon after Hubert’s funeral. “We exchanged cool, warning looks – which of us could behave the best: which of us could be least embarrassing…”
Though she does feel the pain when her hopes of marriage fade, she will not show it for she has learned to be a dutiful daughter and how to behave in the same socially impeccably manner as her parents. Phoning the doctor to report her mother’s death for example to the others she has time to observe:
… how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave – believe me, I know. I have always known. All my life far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.
What Keane lets us see is how Aroon is ‘right’ about behaviour but so often wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose isn’t just warming her father’s foot when he’s confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as odd. It’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”
Is she really that limited in understanding that she doesn’t see her mother’s behaviour for what it is: cruelty. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl whose life has been blighted and who seems not to understand how this has happened.
It’s the gap between what Aaron knows and understands and what we as readers understand that makes Good Behaviour such a tremendous book. Added to that Keane’s characters are wholly believable; none of them come across in flattering way. They wouldn’t dream of treating their dogs or horses badly yet are perfectly capable of being mean and spiteful to fellow humans in revenge for personal grievances whether real or imagined. That doesn’t mean this is a novel entirely devoid of humour. There is a wonderful set piece towards the end of the novel where Aaron, on the morning of her father’s funeral is despatched to the station to collect one of his old friends.She lets herself be persuaded to take a tipple in the station buffet – one brand and ginger ale turns into two and three and then she falls on the ice and spends the afternoon sleeping it off while everyone else is at the funeral. But Keane suddenly turns from humour to pathos as Aaron realises she has “let the side down”.
At that moment I knew myself entirely bereft. The sofa murmured and creaked under my sobbing. She [Mummie] was keeping strictly to the day’s essentials; things must be done, masks against any vulgar intrusions of grief. I felt like a child who wets her knickers at a party. Nowhere to hide, no refuge from the shame of it.
Impossible not to feel sympathy at moments like this for a girl who has only wanted ever to love and to be loved but whose soul has been suppressed through neglect and a lifetime of required good behaviour.
A wonderful book; faultless in its concept and in its execution.
About the book: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane was published in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. It is the first novel Molly Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie J Farrell.) Apparently Keane sent it to a publisher but when it was rejected as ‘too dark’ she stuck it in a kitchen drawer. But then Peggy Ashcroft visited and struck down with flu, asked for something to read. Having read the typescript she urged Molly to try and publish.
About the author: Molly Keane was born as Mary Skrine in County Kildare in Ireland in 1904 into a ‘serious hunting and fishing family’. She wrote her first novel at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance, using the pseudonym of M. J Farrell to hide her activities from her sporting friends. Between 1928 and 1961 she wrote 10 novels and a clutch of successful plays.The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. Interest in her revived after publication of Good Behaviour. She continued to write well into her 80s. There is an excellent article in The Guardian in which editor Diana Athill reflects on her relationship with Keane – click this link
Why I read this book: I bought this in a library sale. I’d read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. But I’d seen plenty of reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust to the effect of persuading me I really should read Good Behaviour. So thank you Heaven Ali ( her review is here) and the many other reviewers in the Library Thing Virago group. Good Behaviour is one of my 20booksofsummer choices.