Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860Verdict: Hard work.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

I did not always enjoy my reading (or rather listening) experience. This book combines many things I dislike in fiction: unfairness and characters that drove me up the walls being the most important factors here but also a fairly non-existent plot. But I cannot deny the genius of this book either. Anna Burns has a brilliant way with words and the atmosphere she created here is breathtaking in its claustrophobic intensity.

Told in conversational stream-of-consciousness, the language is the obvious draw here. Anna Burns has crafted sentences so wonderful, I was in awe. Listening to the audiobook worked exceedingly well for me because the conversational and circular narration could shine this way without me skipping whole sentences (as I would surely have done had I read this on paper). Burns works with thoughtful repetition here, making this a stylistically interesting book. Intellectually, I found this stimulating and I absolutely appreciate how she slowly but surely expands on her insular narrative in a way that felt highly rewarding, with themes flowing together and building a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, while I can admire the craft, I really did not enjoy myself. In the middle, I was very close to frustrated tears and wanted to shake the narrator. While I understand what Burns was doing, I would have prefered to follow a different narrator. She really drove me up the walls with her incapability of talking to anybody in any meaningful way. While nobody is ever referred to by their name but rather by descriptors such as “maybe-boyfriend” or “first brother-in-law”, some of these characters became more real than others and the narrator sadly remained a mystery to me until near the end. I might have enjoyed this more otherwise.

So, yes, it’s brilliant, yes, it probably deserves all the accolades it got, but it is very much not the book for me. Writing this review nearly changed my mind, because there really is so much to admire here, but fact is, if I hadn’t read this for the longlist, I would not finished it.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns

15 thoughts on “Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

  1. I think 3 stars is the best case scenario for you and this book so I am happy! I know we’ve talked about this at length and you know exactly how I feel about this book, so I will not go on and on, but I completely understand where you’re coming from in all of your criticisms and it’s actually refreshing to see a not-totally-positive review for this book that critiques something other than the language. Because yes it’s definitely challenging prose but it’s SO brilliant as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, it’s absolutely best case scenario as it really isn’t my type of book at all. But the language was just so mesmerizing! I don’t know how I would have fared with a print copy but the audiobook narrator was just utterly brilliant. Plus, it helps that it doesn’t reeeally matter if you lose track of what’s going on for a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I might want to listen to the audio at some point a few years down the line when it’s not so fresh. I keep hearing that it’s a great way to consume that book.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I was very much with you in admiring and respecting the technical achievement of Burns’ work, but not exactly loving the actual reading experience.

    I wonder how I would have fared with the audio version, as lots of people seem to agree that it works very well in that format.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a look through the papercopy in a bookshop last week and I don’t think I could have made it through the book in that format. The audio definitely improved my reading experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great review. Despite a negative first impression, I ended up really loving everything about this book, but I can absolutely see why it’s so divisive. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this one more but glad you still found something to appreciate. I hope your next Women’s Prize title is more to your liking!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am so torn about this book – there really is a lot to admire. But I also really did not enjoy long stretches of it. Although she pulls it together rather brilliantly in the last quarter I thought.

      Liked by 1 person

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