“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,” begins this strange and intriguing novel that tackles the Northern Ireland conflict from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl with no interest in the Troubles” writes the Guardian reviewer .
Except it isn’t about Belfast, not specifically. Neither place nor people are named in Milkman. I’ve just started reading it. This is a dystopian society about character rather than characters. The absence of familiar points of identification makes it a tough read, like looking at an abstract painting you don’t quite understand. Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Pinteresque even at times Biblical; you name it. Belfast people will identify the Waterworks off the Antrim Road. But If you usually fall in into the familiar trap of trying precisely to identify scenes and types, I advise you to give up early. It’ll break your heart.
Our heroine is a daily runner in the park. As she runs she reads, a distinctive feat in itself. Running and reading are at once her escape and an irresistible challenge in a gangland community which is both sentimental and brutalised. That rings a bell straight away. Her detachment from family and friends gives her not only the allure of mystery but rare – and highly literate – powers of observation and introspection. The Milkman is not a milkman but is always up to track her early run. What’s he up to, seduction or another sinister purpose? But she is no chick to be blown in the wind. She dominates more than she complies…
Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book,” she tells us. “This would be a 19th-century book because I did not like 20th-century books because I did not like the 20th-century. I suppose now, looking back, this milkman knew all of that as well.”
What exactly is it that the Milkman – a predatory paramilitary – knew? That she walked home alone, or that she was steeped in the 19th century? The latter, when you stop to think about it, is the creepier.
Welcomed as a novel that will “help people think about Me Too”, it has also been praised for a unique first-person voice rich in the conversational language of Northern Ireland and its handling of universal problems facing women and outsiders.
Judges have said they did not consider the current prominence of Northern Ireland or the gender equality debate in their deliberations, nor was the accessibility of the book to average readers “on the Tube”.
Milkman has been hailed as a book that “will last” by the chairman of the panel of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who said the novel was as useful for thinking about fractured societies in Lebanon and Syria as it was for the current gender debate in the West.
The chairman said he was “resigned” to the novel being linked to the Me Too movement, but said the work was more universal. Appiah said at a ceremony at the Guildhall in London: “It speaks to the future. I think it’s going to last. “I think this will help people to think about Me Too. It’s not just about something that is going on in this moment. “This is about the way in which men and women put pressure on a young girl to do things sexually that she doesn’t want to do. It had to do with a masculine environment. “This is particular, but it’s brilliantly universal. It’s in the context of a sectarian, divided society.”
The triumph of Milkman, the latest in the long and distinguished list of Booker winners by Irish writers, will keep everybody happy; more importantly, it is a genuinely worthy winner. The bookies, with their usual perspicacity where literary matters are concerned, saw it as a six to one outsider, and one can see why they thought the judges might have been scared of giving it the palm: neither its style nor its subject matter make it an easy read. But it is very funny, thought-provoking and unforgettable.
Anna Burns, who was born in Belfast in 1962 and brought up in Ardoyne, says that the book was inspired by growing up “in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could”. But this is not documentary realism.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London