It takes only a page or two of reading to realize that the cover of “Milkman” is deceptive. The binding of the 2018 winner of the Man Booker Prize depicts an innocuous, fluorescent-pink sunset — one of those once a year, stop-and-snap-a-photo sunsets that makes “Milkman” stands out among its fellow books.
The sedative lightness of the cover seems to admit innocuousness. But “Milkman” is not innocuous. Nor is it gentle, or quiet, or apologetic — nothing that the cover may suggest about a subdued, romantic narrative. To say I wasn’t excited to read the Booker winner would be a lie — based on the superficiality of covers and excerpts, I have rooted for “Milkman” since its nomination on the long-list — but the way I fell in love with reading “Milkman” was not in the pleasant, blushing manner I had expected. It was a cycle of shock, recoil and return.
Anna Burns’s third novel narrates the story of an 18-year-old girl (referred to as “Middle Sister,” as none of the characters in “Milkman” are prescribed actual names) over the course of two months. Her unnamed town is saturated with violence — violence from the ubiquitously demonized enemy countries “over the water,” violence from the renouncers of the state that control Middle Sister’s town and violence from the state police as they intervene in a village of scattered revolutionaries. Surprisingly, though, this war-zone setting is but an offhand normality in the book. Instead, it is Milkman, a paramilitary that begins making unwarranted advances on middle sister, that takes the place of chief antagonist in the book.
At first glance, Burns lays out an invidious landscape that seems to hyperbolize the dark experience of growing up as a woman in the late 20th century. Maybe, Burns seems to suggest, the descent of society would look like this for all genders. But on second thought, the landscape Middle Sister walks — and how her hyperaware, rightfully-paranoid thoughts congeal in it — becomes painfully real. Middle Sister’s encounters with Milkman while walking, her fears of being drugged, the pernicious comments coming from third brother-in-law, all resonate uncomfortably with the realties meeting women today.
This daring, critical kick at that experience of being a woman pays off. The apotheosis of the book’s dark and applicable portrayals is perhaps Tablets Girl, a “girl who was actually a woman,” that is one of the local outcasts in Middle Sister’s town due to her propensity to poison people. This usually takes place, most suitably and without retribution, in bars. People flee from Tablets Girl, people watch their drinks when Tablets Girl is around. It’s not just Burns’s clear allusion to date-rape that that is to be appreciated here, but her spiked humor and exaggeration also.
This is not to reduce “Milkman” down to a forced, constricted focus on gender-politics though. Burns’s writing alone is remarkable (something I refuse to say passively). “Milkman” is brimming with endlessly long paragraphs, lose-your-train-of-thought stretched sentences and digressing thoughts from Middle Sister that render the book incredibly complex. At first, I was perturbed by this formal and royal-esque writing, especially upon an encounter with a paragraph spanning four, almost five, pages. But as I continued, I found myself — in an unlikely way — reading Middle Sister’s voice in an uninterrupted pattern even more critical and translucent than I expected possible. This is assisted by Burns’s near-perfect draw of synonyms through the book, making her writing appear dependably careful and personal.
I was enamored by the characters in “Milkman” and the abrasive humor that was tacked onto them. It isn’t often that I get a full cast of characters (narrator, antagonist, family) that are so real, so exciting to encounter. Most memorable are the “wee sisters,” Middle Sister’s three younger sisters who, despite their young ages, are infatuated with topics such as French revolutionaries, going through “Kafka phases” and eavesdropping every moment they get. Characters like the wee sisters offer unexpected gratification along Burns’s dark timeline of events. The real humor displayed make “Milkman” all the more authentic and pleasurable.
I love “Milkman” because it is a fruitful attempt to offer me hints of a human experience I will never be able to understand, let alone be familiar with. Perhaps the most evocative and vivid account in the vein of social-rebellion and unwanted-gaze I have ever encountered, “Milkman” is a narrative that has been told repeatedly, even frequently in the 21st century. Burns’s unequivocal writing turns this narrative into a fearsome chant, one well worth shouting along to.