Lately I’ve been using the Libby app to try out a lot of ebooks and audiobooks that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. The latest novel I discovered in this way is The Milkman (by Anna Burns).
I don’t even think I looked at the blurb that closely. I read something about ‘surveillance’ and ‘paramilitary,’ and I think I assumed it would be a Black-Mirror-esque sci-fi. That’s one really nice thing about these library-apps: you can pick up a book on a whim (and audiobook in this case) and often you end up pleasantly surprised.
I think the reason I assumed that Anna Burns had written some kind of near-future sci-fi was because the blurb and the book itself are deliberately oblique about the setting. But it seems very obvious that we’re kind of in a ‘whimsical’ version of 1970s Northern Ireland. I say ‘whimsical’ because there is a sort of stream-of-consciousness quality to the narration that pulls out the humor in small things, even though terrorism and sectarian intimidation are a daily concern.
The narrator is simply referred to a ‘middle sister,’ and that’s not some kind of ‘Handsmaid’ epithet, it’s simply her pecking order in her very large family. For the first few chapters, she’s like Belle from Beauty in the Beast. She’s been causing a commotion because she literally walks through her provincial town with her nose in a book. Soon middle sister is approached by her own version of ‘Gaston.’ He’s called the ‘Mlikman,’ and he’s a heavy-hitter in the local insurgency. He wants middle sister to be his kept woman.
Middle sister has seen friends and family members get swept up in the ‘Troubles’ and end up dead, so she has no interest in getting involved with the Milkman. But soon rumors are spreading, and most people believe she’s Milkman’s mistress, even though they’ve barely spoken a word. Middle sister feels intimidated and trapped. This is the gist of the book’s main plot, and it’s sounds pretty cool (sort of ‘You’ meets ‘Patriot Games’), but it’s not the main POINT of the book. The book is shooting for more of a sort of slice-of-life jaunt between multiple storylines in this community that is so narrow-minded and shell-shocked that it’s practically totalitarian. The resolution of the Milkman plot is sort of anticlimactic (and also revealed in the first sentence of the book).
Besides the Milkman, middle sister rambles on about several other off-beat characters. There’s ‘real milkman,’ ‘third brother-in-law,’ ’nuclear boy,’ ‘tablet girl,’ ‘sister of tablet girl,’ ‘Something McSomething,’ etc. In case you can’t tell, no one in the book is called by their real name. This is just one of the books many quirks. The narration (straight from middle sister’s head) is chatty and rambling, but also very lively. Middle sister repeats the same names and idioms over and over in short-succession, and she goes on long diversions from her main point. Often times these diversions end up being more important than her main train of thought. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narration-performance by Brid Brennan is excellent. I get tired and distracted trying to read long passages, and I’m not sure if I could have got through the book by reading.
But overall, it was a very pleasant surprise, and definitely a style and a setting that I’d never quite seen before. If you like multiple storylines in one book, an off-beat feminine perspective, and dreamy historical fiction, I’d say check this out. For some reason, it also kind of reminded me of Virgin Suicides (set in the 70s; a very distinctive narration style; and focused on immersing you in a tone and a feel, as opposed to driving a plot along), which to me is very high praise indeed!