Man Booker 2018 Review #3: ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns – Irish Whispers

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”

What on earth can you do with an opening like that apart from read it, ravenously?

Thus begins ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns, the tale of an 18-year-old narrator (“middle sister”) who falls foul of the judgement of her community during the Irish Troubles by inadvertently attracting the attention of an ominous paramilitary named ‘Milkman’.

Middle sister is not remotely interested in the politics of The Troubles and instead is more concerned with her maybe-relationship with “maybe-boyfriend”, whom she sneaks off to see in another district to avoid her gossiping neighbours.

Unfortunately, when Milkman begins to approach her on the streets, the watching community – in tragic chorus fashion – constructs their own version of events which rapidly overtakes the truth.

Image of a line of milk bottles

The Troubles

‘Milkman’ is certainly the most Irish of all Irish novels I’ve read thus far – not just because of its subject matter but because of its intensely likeable (and unmistakably Irish) style.

Middle sister is whimsical, charming and very funny, and it’s an act of genius on Anna Burns’s part to create a character who seems to be all of these things entirely by accident.

Her style of narration is eccentric but endearing. Her dialogue may not be terribly realistic, but the way she captures people’s relationships is. From establishing middle sister’s maybe-relationship with maybe-boyfriend through to her hypothesis that everyone in her area is deliberately picking the ‘wrong spouse’ to avoid the heartache of seeing the ‘right spouse’ blown up in the troubles, Burns is bang on the money.

‘Milkman’ is also a unique, often comically hyperbolic look at how people deal with tragedy. Many of the community become the district’s ‘beyond-the-pales’; undesirables who refuse to adapt to the established state of things.

Among these are ‘tablets girl’, ‘nuclear boy’ and ‘real milkman’ – an actual milkman, not to be confused with the eponymous paramilitary. Each of these meandering oddballs comes to play an important part in the story, as we learn more about their own tragic backstories.

What’s in a name?

Nobody in this novel is named. Instead, we grow accustomed to a series of pseudonyms such as “third brother in law”, “oldest friend”, “wee sisters” etc.

In Burns’ world, it’s better to know as little as possible and get involved as little as possible, which could explain the shielded identities of all the novel’s key players. But it also gives the sense of being representative – that this kind of story could play out in many a community, and there is something inevitable about the way the factions of this community rally round or set their rifle sights on each other.

An assured style

Anna Burns’s style is likely to divide her readership. It is not what I would describe as an ‘easy read’, and in fact, seems to sit somewhere between traditional narrative and stream-of-consciousness.

I happened to love it. As with many books which have an individual style, it’s a bit tricky to get used to at the beginning, but by a few pages in you feel firmly ensconced inside middle-sister’s head with total access to her free-wheeling thoughts.

A huge part of the success of this novel also involves what is not happening. Much in the same way that the community imagines an affair developing between Milkman and middle sister even though it isn’t, she herself refuses to engage with Milkman or ask for help from others because she has decided to pretend his harassment isn’t happening, even though it is.

The two of them are bound so tightly by what the community has deemed to be true, that it seems hard to imagine a way for middle-sister to escape Milkman’s clutches.

Overall Milkman was a hugely satisfying read, with a unique, likeable style and a well-crafted story which somehow manages to walk the line between comedy and tragedy with perfect balance. Highly recommended.

strong 8_10

Who else is reading the Booker shortlist? First thoughts?

Pick up a copy of Milkman using my Amazon affiliate link.

9 thoughts on “Man Booker 2018 Review #3: ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns – Irish Whispers

Add yours

  1. I just found your blog as Hannah linked to one of your posts in her monthly wrap up, and I’m loving these Booker reviews! I read the longlist this year and Milkman was my second favorite behind In Our Mad and Furious City, so of the shortlist I was absolutely thrilled that it won. Loved reading your review!


    1. Hey Rachel, thanks so much for stopping by! I haven’t read Our Mad and Furious City but I hear there were quite a few really good longlisters. Now trying to read something a bit lighter after all that “literature”!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought it was a pretty solid list all around, Snap aside! The three main ones I thought were snubbed from the shortlist were In Our Mad and Furious City, From a Low and Quiet Sea, and Normal People. But I quite liked the shortlist as well and I’m so happy with the winner.

        So true, I’ve been craving a sort of mindless thriller recently!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah what was Snap about?! I was really surprised to see it there too- guess that’s the result of having a crime writer on the judging panel. If you are after a really good thriller I would highly recommend ‘I am Pilgrim’ if you haven’t already read it, it’s definitely the best thriller I’ve read in years.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I heard that Belinda Bauer and Val McDermid have the same agent, so if that’s true it certainly explains a few things!! I’m all for genre fiction being eligible for the Booker, but it should be exceptional genre fiction and Snap was just… not.

        Ooh I have not read that one, thanks for the rec! The summary makes it sound brilliant.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliantly crafted, I thought this was so original and loved the style once I got into the rhythm of it – it was certainly easier than Marlon James Jamaican patois, although I was equally in awe of the writer achieving that in a novel as well. So please Milkman won and that Anna Burns can keep on writing and celebrate her commitment to not giving up on writing.


    1. The more I read about Milkman’s reception as winner of the Man Booker, the more I hear it being criticised for having a tricky style – it’s gutting for me as I really loved it once I got over the initial shock! I hope lots of people do persevere and enjoy it as much as you and I did!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: