Review: Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns. Reading Ireland Month


#begorrathon20  #readingirelandmonth20
#reading ireland month

I’m participating in a number of reading challenges, reading “months” etc., this year to vary my reading even more! I’m finally reading print/eBooks again–not simply listening to audios on my commute.


Today, I’m starting Read Ireland Month, hosted by the blog 746 Books. (Check out this blog–nifty premise and fun to see her progress). My first review is of the Man Booker Prize Winner Milkman, by Anna Burns.

My Interest



I annually try to read at least one prize winner just for the sake of it. Add to it that my family came to the U.S. from Ulster via Australia [well, one part of it did!] and though we are protestants my interest in ALL of Ireland is strong. I visited the Republic of Ireland in 1977–exactly the era in which Milkman is set across the boarder during the Troubles.  Add to it the semester I spent reviewing the Troubles in an independent study project in college and you have a ton of reasons to pick this book. (Oh, to have had such a brilliant novel to   intertwine with my research!)


The Story

“It’s disturbing,” the friend explains. “It’s deviant. It’s optical illusional. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why—with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with all of us having to pull together—would anyone want to call attention to themselves here?”

Unnamed  18 year-old “Middle Sister” is coming-of-age in a British Army-occupied city in Northern Ireland late in the years of the Troubles. Like all cities in that region, in that era, there were clear lines of demarcation–this will be a familiar idea to any who followed the gang warfare in LA or Chicago in recent years. S-S-D-City.

The “Gangs” here are Catholic Irish who want to be in the Irish Republic, and the Protestants loyal to the Queen in that “country over the water.” Just as in any gang situation there is collateral damage. The wrong person gets shot. The wrong car blown up. So Middle Sister is fingered as a romantic partner of “The Milkman”–a paramilitary leader (i.e. gang lord) old enough to be her father. Meanwhile, she’s in a relationship with “Maybe-Boyfriend,” and her widowed mother comes to be romantically involved with the real milkman who actually delivers the dairy products in the area.

Now, just what was Middle Sister doing that was seen as so dreadful in the quote above? Reading while out walking. Reading Victorian fiction. Reading without worry about where she was going. Reading without thought to the paramilitaries or the renouncers or the country over the water or …..

My Thoughts

I loved this book from start-to-finish with one tiny exception that I’ll discuss in a minute. The unique rhythm and linguistic style of this story–told in part almost as a marching cadence “sung” by troops and drill sergeant, was mesmerizing. (I gather many others hated it– but I loved it).

I also loved the other unique aspect of the storytelling–no names were used beyond Chef,  [Mother], Milkman and Real-Milkman. Otherwise all were “Middle Sister,” “Eldest wee sister,’ “Maybe-Boyfriend,” “Tablets-Girl,” “the Country Over the Water,” “the Country Over the Border,” etc. To me, this was like poetry.

The book definitely shines in the excellent audio version–the reader, Bríd Brennan, perfectly voices “Middle Sister.” Like so much of Irish story telling this comes across brilliantly in the spoken word. I’m not sure how well it would fare, though, in print. The writing makes the manners, rules, taboos, restrictions, and realities of life for “Middle Sister” come alive. I could relate to some of her life’s normal issues as we are approximate age mates which made the story that much better. The whole reading issue was just right for my “self” of that time and age, though I didn’t read and walk! I love when a piece of story is a perfect fit for my own life.

I truly admired the talent Anna Burns poured into this book. The effort it took to tell the story in this rigid ‘cadence” this something,  something,  list, story,  story, something, something, list lilting structure took patience and craftsmanship to hone. It was brilliantly done.

The only moment that made me roll my eyes was the now sadly predictable insertion into just about any work of historical fiction of a slug of modern day PC thought. Thankfully it was very, very brief in this book.

The Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

For once an award winner truly lived up to, and perhaps even surpassed, its  hype.

9 thoughts on “Review: Milkman: A Novel by Anna Burns. Reading Ireland Month

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