There were two separate narratives in the United Kingdom after the announcement that Anna Burns’ novel “Milkman” had won the 2018 Booker Prize.
Firstly, the win elevated Anna Burns as a folk hero, as a result of her thanking in “Milkman’s” acknowledgments the food banks and social services she used after completing her manuscript while waiting to sell the novel (which was rejected several times before it was published). In the following interviews and profiles about her win, she shared that she had a back injury, and struggled to make ends meet, and was writing under extreme financial constraints, so she needed to draw on government support. On Channel 4, she spoke openly about the gratitude and relief she would feel to be solvent for the first time in a long while: “I’ve got 30 days to declare any change in circumstances and this is a helluva change in circumstances.”
Her comments were applauded, but also fueled debate and drew criticism on the internet and social media that she had taken advantage of a system. These criticisms were beat back, the evidence being quite clear that she made the best use of the help she received in writing “Milkman” despite considerable challenges, which is what social services are meant to be used for. She was triumphant and is now beloved, at least, in the literary community.
The second narrative is focused on the book itself, which has not altogether been accepted with the same amount of triumph. It certainly should be praised, not only for her status as the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the prize but also for an accomplished book presenting an ordinary, unnamed 18-year old girl’s perspective of her life unintentionally ensnared by the politics and forces of the Troubles — Northern Ireland’s complicated and destructive ethno-conflict that pitted neighbors and communities against each other and divided a nation into factions and mini-factions in the late 20th century.
Instead, the book has been met with careful appreciation and lots of not particularly kind words in reviews stating that it is “eccentric,” “odd,” “difficult” and “complicated” — all meant to suggest it is a hard read. In the Guardian, Sam Leith, who is the literary editor of the Spectator, rounded up what he called the “epithets chosen” from reviews, including“brain-kneading” and “challenging” and “impenetrable” before making a case for the importance of such “difficult” books. The book has also been called “relentlessly internalized” and “baffling.”
It should go without saying that a novel with the setting of Northern Ireland in the late 20th century should not be an ‘easy’ read.
Don’t let this do anything but persuade you to read and absorb it. The difficulty is only in settling into a fresh voice and style that are dense, yes, but that would not work or be anywhere near as revelatory or transporting in any other format. It should go without saying that a novel with the setting of Northern Ireland in the late 20th century should not be an “easy” read. It would be a dishonest book and a failure. There is too much to contend with.
In an unnamed town and in an unnamed country, our narrator, the Middle Sister, is doing the best she can to contend — to contend with other people’s desires and wants for her life. Young women don’t culturally belong only to themselves, even if they want, but are subject still to the desires of their parents, families, boyfriends, older siblings, friends, churches and communities.
They want her to stop walking around town with her nose in a book, to which she asks, “Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read ‘Jane Eyre’ in public?” Her habit has drawn the attention of a man referred to as Milkman, a senior member of the paramilitary whom everyone warns her about. But, she explains, he is not her boyfriend or lover. He is her stalker, her nemesis and her nightmare. Milkman won’t leave her alone, even threatening to kill the man she cares for — who is named only as her “maybe boyfriend.”
She is trying to lay low, steer clear of the sectarian strife around her, but her withdrawn nature is startling to just about everyone around her. Everyone else is deeply involved in side-taking, judgment and policing each other’s behavior as friends, neighbors and enemies are killed, vanished or punished for being on the right or wrong side of things.
No one believes she isn’t involved with the Milkman. Even her best friend, whom she finally entrusts with her secret that the Milkman is upending and threatening her life, only berates her for walking while reading too much, bringing all of this scrutiny on herself, being different from everyone else.
“Milkman” is a deft and triumphant work of considerable intelligence and importance.
It is a deeply feminist work, a compelling and significant look at how the regular life of a young woman is intimately used for personal and political gain. And it is told originally. The voice isn’t so much eccentric and odd as strong and unique and honest — yes, the narration is like none you’ve read. That alone is its triumph. Readers, perhaps, should be willing to do a little work to discover an important book; the gift of reading never came with the promise of it being always “easy.” And you can’t help but wonder if this is gendered criticism. Would it receive this criticism of being too hard if it were written by a man? “Milkman’s” critical reception is a little too much like subliminally delivered advice women receive throughout life to dumb themselves down to be better liked by the masses. Men and “difficult” books by men don’t receive this criticism.
The other triumph of “Milkman” is our narrator’s presentation of the troubles of being a woman — not just in a violent society torn apart by what is essentially a form of war. The sexism and violence against our narrator are not unfamiliar and not unique to Northern Ireland’s conflict; they are universal and resonant in the daily lives of women, and in “Milkman” are communicated with far more precision than in most novels of war. Her observations and reflections of the storm that is swirling around her are smart, darkly funny, grim and real. Middle Sister is a force. She is a modern heroine. She is blisteringly observant of some pretty necessary truths about the state of a woman’s life and attempt to find her own agency. So what that her internalized narration is unsettling and unfamiliar at first? The reader should treasure the invitation to follow along with her brilliant train of thought. She’s not difficult at all.
Graywolf Press: 360 pp., $16
Devers is an arts journalist and editor. Her first book, “Train,” comes out next year from Bloomsbury. She is founder of the Second Shelf, a rare book business and literary journal focusing on the writing of women.