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Why Anna Burns’ Milkman is such a phenomenon

Few contemporary novels will have had a year like Milkman by Anna Burns. It was published, without a great deal of fanfare or advance publicity, in May 2018. But then it began to attract attention by dint of being longlisted, and then shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Some were surprised when it won. I wasn’t. In the course of a long commute to work, I had listened to the remarkable audiobook of Milkman twice. Gripped by that experience, I had begun to read the novel with focus. What intrigued me most was the question of how Burns had managed to write a book which can be read both within and outside the Irish tradition. I was also drawn to the question of how and why this novel seems so compelling for our time, and of how it seems so attuned to the zeitgeist of this #MeToo moment.

Quality of voice is all important to the experience of listening to an audiobook.  The reading of Milkman by Bríd Brennan perfectly catches the cadence and rhythm of Burns’ strange and compelling depiction of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The story is told from the perspective of “Middle Sister,” an unnamed central character. Milkman almost seems to have been written to be read aloud. Certainly the experience of listening to the work—my first ever experience of listening to a serious work of literature before reading any words on the page—has persuaded me that audio is a medium that deserves to be taken seriously. It is also an ideal way to tackle a work that might seem challenging, or forbidding.

These are charges which have been made against Milkman. Perhaps I too would have faltered had I begun to read the book in the traditional way. Reading and listening are fundamentally different kinds of cognitive experience, and I cannot recover the experience of being a first reader of Milkman now. I was hooked into the world of the novel right there in those car journeys. I even began to invent reasons for driving further, just so I could hear a bit more.

Milkman might be classified as a feminist Troubles narrative. Or a novel of voice. Or a dystopian fiction. Or a psychological thriller. In some sense it is all of these things.  Middle Sister, the seventh of eleven children, is aged eighteen. Though she is living in the heart of a family home, she is a loner who makes herself conspicuous to community gossips by walking alone, and reading as she walks. Her isolation deepens once she begins to be stalked by “Milkman,” a 41 year old paramilitary who pushes himself in to the edges of her life. She is deeply confused by his attentions and does not know how to respond. (“Thing was, he hadn’t physically touched me.”) When her mother’s friend suggests that this encroachment might be something that the “women of the issues” could address, Middle Sister responds with derision:

These women, constituting the nascent feminist group in our area – and exactly because of constituting it – were firmly placed in the category of those way, way beyond-the-pale.

These biting ironies—so typical of the way Middle Sister sees the world—suggest that the novel is a critique of feminism, and its failings. It is also a tour-de-force exploration of an evolving feminist consciousness.

Literary prizes are big business for publishers, and booksellers.  Anything listed for the Booker has a sales boost, and winners always sell well. Milkman has been a particular success, with sales in the UK jumping 880% in the week after the Booker win was announced (from 963 copies to 9446 copies).   This is the highest sales jump for any recent Booker winner, besting even Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner in 2009. Just over a year after publication, sales exceed 540,000 copies. The work has been a particular international success, with the deal for simplified Chinese rights believed to be the biggest single deal ever done for an author not previously published in China. This is testament to the fact that Burn’s work—inspired by the experience of growing up in Belfast in the late 1960s and 1970s—has transcended the conditions of its own making.

In addition to the Booker, Milkman has been awarded the George Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, a British prize that recognizes writing that comes closest to achieving Orwell’s ambition to “make political writing into an art.”  Within the US, Milkman has been awarded the National Book Critics Circle Prize, and the audiobook has just received a Cameo award. A surprise best seller, Milkman is a rare commodity: a work of literary fiction that is both a commercial and critical success. May there be many more like it.

Featured Image: Photograph taken by Clare Hutton.

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