Book Review – Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Booker Prize 2018)
On numerous occasions since I was a pubescent tyke I have attempted to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. The first was at 13, when a friend of mine and I, acting on the advice of a rakish older teenager, tried to find the reputed purple prose and forbidden porn between its covers (we didn’t, of course). Then in later years, more attempts, borne out of guilt and curiosity and masochism. I never made it past more than a few chapters, getting lost in the dense jungle of words and paragraphs, endless, rambling, chaotic, a steamy thicket of impenetrable literary flora.
I finally admitted defeat and moved on.
And then, a couple of years ago, I went to see the inimitable Jenny Steyn acting (solo); 90 minutes of explosively performed Molly Bloom from Ulysses. And she did it, unsurprisingly, in Irish. With that accent reeking of history and famine and whiskey and poetry. The curled ‘r’s’ and gentle lilts and hills and valleys splattered with metaphors and allusions. And James Joyce suddenly came to life. That’s it I thought! You have to read Joyce in Irish! Not English. Irish (the accent)!
And so it was with Milkman, this year’s Booker prize winner. Called ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘impossibly dense’ by some reviewers, I decided, fuggit, I am going in with my machete. And I will read it in Irish (I am no good at speaking accents, but I can hear them, the song and cadence in every sentence). On the rare occasions where I lost concentration switched to English it indeed became, um, leaden, opaque.
So this is like nothing else you will ever read, if you decide to uncrate your old Irish sword and fearlessly wade in to battle.
The best way I can describe this book it is one part Joyce (the close-packed cornucopia of words, sentences falling over each other, paragraphs sweeping endlessly over many pages, the joyous vernacular – (a ‘numbance’, an attitude of feeling numb, for example, or the emphatic use of ‘auld’ for ‘old’, written and pronounced just as spelled, just slightly differently than the boring english version).
And then one part Joseph Heller (weird and wobbly characters like ‘tablets-girl’ or ‘Somebody McSomebody’ or ‘nuclear-boy’ only mentioned early, but making themselves loudly and colourfully known only later, like Major Major Major in Catch-22). And the deep, black, screaming hilarity of the most unfunny of situations.
And then one part Kafka. Or maybe four parts Kafka. The world which unfolds makes Kafka’s cockroach seem common.
Our heroine (never actually named, like all of the characters in this book) is an 18 year-old eccentric, walking around her 1970’s Irish town (also not named, and neither is the IRA or Northern Ireland or Britain – only ‘renouncers of state’ and ‘the country over the water’). She walks with her head down, reading books, reading more books and not talking to anyone. That’s all she does, other than occasionally visit her ‘maybe-boyfriend’.
We soon find out why. These are deep in the times of the troubles. Everyone is suspect. Or could be suspect. Or should be suspect Or is made to be suspect. Traitors are a rumour away, a wrong smile, a misplaced glance, a wrong address. There are bombs and beatings and tar-and-featherings and kneecappings and death and disappearance. One day you are just living a small life and the next you are branded a traitor. By people who are perhaps, maybe also maybe-traitors. Or could be. Or could be made to be.
So bewildered is our heroine by this illogical and Bedlamic world into which she is forced to inhabit that all she can do is read and walk and talk to no one and look at no one. And have sex with maybe-boyfriend, who loves cars and has a workshop and has a acquired a turbo-charger from a car from ‘over-the-water’ and so his neighbour wonders whether he is a traitor and so…
Into her cloistered world steps Milkman, near the book’s opening. Not a milkman (although there is a milkman in the book, an important one). No, Milkman is a renouncer-of-state, a big shot paramilitary. And old and scary and slimy. And he wants her, because if you are a big shot in the renouncers-of-state, you take what you want, including pretty eccentric and vulnerable 18 year-olds who finally have no other choice.
And so the book takes wings of a sort, with our heroine stopping at every thought and conundrum and possibility, turning it this way and that, her head a jumble of maybes and surely-nots and what-ifs. And lets not forget the many, many sisters and brothers-laws and widowed mom and ballroom-dancing children and slaughtered dogs and decapitated cat’s head and, god, ach, ach, this book is near impossible to review, even though the plot is deceptively simple.
So, like my first attempts at reading James Joyce I am giving up on this review.
But if you choose to read it, read it in Irish. It is exhausting, astonishing, beautiful and you will leave it in a numbance.