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  /  Book Reviews   /  Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman is a peculiar book, observing what goes on among people in small communities. It makes use of original language – the banality of everyday speech turned into literature. 

Told through the eyes of a protagonist called ‘Young Woman’ during The Troubles in the 1970s , Northern Ireland is described here as a scary, problematic community. We see how a young woman is created, chased and tries to protect herself from pushy men. One is an older man the town calls the Milkman, who begins harassing her and, despite her lack of interest, rumors begin to spread that they are having an affair.

She does have a boyfriend though – or, as our narrator calls him, ‘Maybe Boyfriend’. That is until one day she discovers he is gay and finds herself wondering if he tried to protect himself from homophobia through his relationship with her.

Despite the background of rumour and doubt, to her surprise, our narrator finds someone honest and helpful in a friend of her mother’s, who she names the ‘Real Milkman’. When she has to walk through unpleasant places in the village, she is taken care of by the Real Milkman, who accompanies her and leads her home.

Meanwhile, fear reigns in the village, which is full of paramilitaries who kill and massacre. No-one knows the facts. Everything is secret. Women oppose them and hold together. 

This game of tension, power and resistance is performed by the narrator with a sense of distance, through obvious and self-explanatory repetitions of her daily life. It is an extremely Catholic world with the macho men as the pivot and head of the community. The writer brings the problems of this difficult community to the fore with threat, exclusion and terror, but all the while using humor as well. 

(The protagonist’s little sisters read academic books mockingly and discuss the encyclopedia. Meanwhile, she denounces the intrusiveness of Mc Lemand.

The author whips up the truth and uses exaggeration. She exposes the practice of buying with baiting and without payment as a fear and contempt reaction of the sellers. )

Milkman is an extraordinary book, full of tension and unusual language, with an original view of a problematic, oppressed society and what goes on under its surface. It asks the question: how do things end up like that?

G. Cleuren 18.05.2021

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