Since winning the 50th Man Booker Prize for fiction, the demand for Anna Burns’ novel Milkman has been consistently on the incline.
Having been described as rule-breaking, visionary, unique and experimental with its increase in popularity, Burns has defied everyones expectations of her novel. Upon its nomination for the Man Booker Prize, it was predicted to be badly received by its audience and its form was viewed as unaccessible. However, Milkman has since broken all of these assumptions, with Faber & Faber producing over 330,000 copies of the incredible book. Burns has not only proven to be one of the most successful Man Booker winners ever, but is also the 1st Northern-Irish author and 17th woman to ever win the Man Booker Prize for fiction.
Having previously published three novels, Little Constructions, Mostly Hero and No Bones, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002, Milkman is her forth, and most successful, novel to date.
Burns has drawn upon The Troubles in Northern-Ireland as a basis for her text, that is the low-level nationalistic war that occurred across Belfast and lasted over two decades at the end of the 20th century. Although the novel does not pin down or name a specific geographical location, it is clear that Burns has used this period of political and social instability to ground her text. Because of its lack of specificity, it is a piece of fiction that is globally accessible, relating to our current unpredictable political climate, with the protagonist’s experiences of sexual harassment resonating with women across the globe.
Although the novel is based around The Troubles and the consequences of this period, it is not heavily focused upon parliamentary action, but the role of the protagonist, in disrupting the status quo. Burns uses her novel as a platform to emphasise the detrimental effects of allowing a society to revolve around fear and inaction. The novel is addressing how quickly things can go wrong in a society, but also how these issues can be redeemed. In focusing on the protagonist directly, Burns emphasises how her uniqueness, individuality and wit give her power and agency, placing this as more significant than parliamentary forces. She becomes an individual focal voice amongst the masses, one that brings to light this cautionary tale of living in a fearful society.
The female protagonist is unnamed throughout the entire novel, only known as ‘middle sister’ and occasionally ‘maybe-girlfriend’. From the beginning of the novel, she stands out for all the wrong reasons, grabbing the unwanted attention of a high-level militant, known as ‘milkman’. His white, nondescript van comes alongside her whilst she walks, with her being ‘frightened and confused by [the milkman’s] pursuing and attempting an affair’ with her. She literally buries her head in a book to avoid trouble, but the milkman still approaches her despite her dismissing him. He seems to already know everything about her and her family when she first encounters him, even though she does not know him at all. His unwanted attention continues throughout the narrative, with rumours spreading surrounding her relationship and her sex life, some started by her ‘first brother in law’. In an already distrustful and threatening society, where even supporting the wrong religion can be catastrophic, being seen as ‘interesting’ is something that is inherently dangerous.
Amongst this predatory relationship, middle sister is also attempting to navigate her relationship with ‘maybe-boyfriend’, who is termed this way because of their undefined, yet long-term relationship. Despite her attempting to hide this relationship from her family and everyone around her, milkman finds out, with middle sister quickly being confronted by the reality of the violent society that she lives in.
Despite the serious subject matter, Burns’ approaches these issues in a humorous and ingenious way, subverting the reader’s expectations at every turn. In telling the story through the eyes of middle sister, Burns is able to give her protagonist psychological interiority, drawing attention to the effects of wider political and social conflicts upon an individual’s life.
Through middle sister’s agonising journey, Burns’ highlights the oppression of tribalism, religion, patriarchy and fear, showing the dangers of conforming to these models and remaining inactive to their threats. With individual phrases and passing comments being twisted and misinterpreted, language becomes dangerous amongst this turmoil, emphasising the fear social and political oppression can cause.
Burns has proven herself to be a skilful and unique writer with her latest novel, creating a society that is grounded in The Troubles, but is relevant to anyone across the globe who are living in heavily disrupted or disjointed societies. With the demand for Milkman continuing to rise throughout December, it has proved to be a timeless and globally relevant must-read; definitely one to purchase over the coming months.