Man Booker Review #1 – “Milkman” by Anna Burns

With just a few days to go now until the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, my goal to read all six titles by the 16th is not going well! In fact, it’s my worst performance in several years; I have only just started on my third title. Milkman took me some time to read. It is quite long, but it is also written in a way that I found it nearly impossible to read at my usual pace. The lyrical prose style that means you have to read nearly every word in order to feel the full impact. The same is true of the second book I read, The Long Take by Robin Robertson, which is in fact an extended poem, although it is somewhat shorter. I’m now on Everything Under, also quite short, but I’m not really enjoying it so finding it quite hard going.

Milkman imgMilkman is set in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the central character and narrator is a young Catholic woman who finds herself drawn unwillingly into a relationship with a local paramilitary leader. It is not clear when the book is set, but I am guessing around the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Northern Ireland is known to be socially conservative, but the general sense of the place of women in society suggests to me that it dates back quite some time. Our central character (not named, I’ll come onto this) is from a large family. Her father is dead and she has several siblings, both older and younger. She is in a “maybe-relationship” with a local young man, who she has been seeing for about a year, though they have not made a commitment to one another. She is keen on running as a hobby and shares this with “third brother-in-law”. Whilst out running one day in a local park she finds that she is observed by a man in a white van. Over subsequent weeks he infiltrates her life by stealth, indicating that he expects her to have a relationship with him. He is known only as “Milkman”. It becomes clear to her that he is quite a powerful local figure in the paramilitary world, so not only does she have little choice about whether to become involved with him or not, it is made quite clear to her that as long as she goes along with him no harm will come to her “Maybe-boyfriend”.

The pace of the novel is slow as we follow her complex internal dialogue about what she should do, her fears, her accounts of how the community reacts to her activities and descriptions of what life is like in this environment of threat, surveillance, oppression and violence. At first I found this slow pace frustrating, especially as there were parts early on that I felt could have been edited down. However, by the end of the book I could see that the author was building her character’s world quite carefully. Some readers will no doubt be only too aware of what life was like at this time in Belfast, the segregation, the violence, the suspicion, but most of us will not, and the slow pace ultimately helped to draw me in and help me appreciate the character’s dilemma. The sense of how she had no choice, the sense of how any behaviour outside the accepted norms is considered beyond the pale. For example, our character has a habit of “Walking while reading”, which almost everyone around her considers unacceptable behaviour and comments upon and encourages her to stop doing. It is ironic that such innocuous behaviour is thought to be dangerous and provocative in a context where shooting, killing and blackmail are not.

None of the characters in the book are named, all are referred to by their relationship to the central character (eg Ma, wee sisters, first sister), or some other title. This is not as complicated as it sounds and I think the author is trying to make her characters representative of the lived experiences of so many ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that time. It is also indicative of the dehumanising effect of the Troubles, and in particular what our young woman went through. By removing any autonomy or choice from her (and it was not just Milkman doing this, it was the strictures of the community) there is a gradual destruction of her selfhood.

So, a long and complex read, but a brilliant novel from a very talented writer. The prose is sublime, the language is like nothing I’ve read before, except perhaps Lisa McInerney. It won’t appeal to those who like action and plot, but for an examination of the day to day life of a young person in Northern Ireland during that terrible period it is something quite special, and very enlightening. Recommended.

Have you managed to read any of the Man Booker shortlisted titles yet?

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Man Booker Prize 2018 – shortlist announced next week

Next Thursday (20 September) sees the announcement of the shortlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary prize in the UK and one of the most important on the international calendar too. The longlist was announced back in July and I have to confess that I was not familiar with any of the novels listed. The shortlist comprises the six best novels, as agreed by the judging panel from their longlist of thirteen books.

MB judges 2018
The Man Booker 2018 judging panel (L-R) – Val McDermid, Leanne Shapton, Kwame Anthony Appiah (Chair), Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose

This is an important year for the Booker as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. There was a special award made earlier this year for the Golden Man Booker, the best work of fiction from all the winners. The judging panel was a stellar cast and each chose their favourite work, as follows:

Robert McCrum – In a Free State (1971) by VS Naipaul

Lemn Sissay – Moon Tiger (1987) by Penelope Lively

Kamila Shamsie – The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

Simon Mayo – Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

Holly McNish – Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders

The English patientThis shortlist was announced in May and the list was then put up for a public vote. My personal favourite of these was Wolf Hall. In 1983, the celebrate the 25th anniversary of the prize a “Booker of Bookers” contest was set up and three judges chose Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I probably agree with. It was good to see the vote open to the public this time rather than a small group of the literati, and the winner was The English Patient. I still remember reading that book for the first time the year it came out and then the wonderful movie with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, which itself went on to win several Oscars including Best Picture.

The panel of judges this year includes Val McDermid, so you can be sure that one of their criteria will be whether or not it’s a great story, something, I think it’s fair to say, literary fiction does not always consider of the highest importance. That was my feeling about last year’s winner, sadly.

For the last couple of years I have set myself the task of reading the shortlist before the winner is announced in October. Last year I managed five out of the six, and I STILL have not completed Paul Auster’s 4321 – I want to, honestly, but it’s SO LONG! I will do the same again this year, although I note that we seem to have one less week than usual between the shortlist and the announcement of the winner on 16 October – yikes, less than four weeks! Let’s hope there are no more monster tomes!

So look out for the shortlist announcement this Thursday; it will probably make many of the news bulletins.

Do you plan to read the Man Booker shortlist?

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