Sunday, January 05, 2020

Reading group: Milkman by Anna Burns

Since we read this book both John and I have had surgery, from which we are both still recovering, and our discussion seems to belong to an earlier, pre-surgery time, its details lost to me apart from the fact that most of us really loved the book.

The book is written in a totally original style - the first-person stream-of-consciouness narration of a seventeen-year-old woman who, at the time of the Irish Troubles, attracts the sexual attention of Milkman, a leading 'renouncer', a Republican paramilitary, a man respected but feared in the society over which he holds sway. Identifying herself only as 'middle sister' (and referring similarly to other characters as 'third brother-in-law', 'maybe boyfriend' and so on), she tells of the stresses and dangers that this forced her into in a community ruled by rigid roles and partisan assumptions and fears. The originality of the voice lies in its combination of the demotic and the effects of her voracious literary reading. Thus it encodes the paradoxes of her situation and psychology: the necessary self-preserving refusal of the poetic (the sunset of the cover) that she shares with her brutalised community, alongside a sophisticated understanding of psychological complexity, and a wilful blindness to her situation alongside a sense of its complex dangers and implications. There is also a certain resultant malapropism, which doesn't come over in fact as malapropism, but as a new diction with its own authority, entirely appropriate for the unique situation of the protagonist and for the uncertainties of the world she inhabits, and its psychology.

Most of us were entirely taken with this voice, and with its humour combined with a deadly seriousness, which makes the story both frightening and at times wildly funny, sometimes both together. Take for instance an episode when the women of the community go to see the renouncers after a group of feminists (for whom they usually have no time) have tried to stand up to the bullying demands of the renouncers, ill advisedly crying 'Over our dead bodies!'
'Don't be ridiculous,' they said. 'You can't kill them. They're simpletons. Intellectual simpletons. Academe! That's all they're fit for.' They added that to do away with the issue women, no matter how annoying they were, would be tantamount to unjust, inconsiderate and merciless behaviour towards the more fragile of our district; that by doing so, the renouncers would create one of those landmark incidents such as would bring regretful consequences for their reputation in history books later on.

However, Mark, who due to personal circumstances hadn't managed to read much of the book, said that before he abandoned it he had been finding the stream-of-consciouness diversions wearying. John agreed with him, saying that he occasionally found the mode too dense and insistent, and that it was perhaps a mode that worked better for a short story, where it wouldn't have to be sustained at length. (In fact, Milkman is 350 tightly-packed pages). This reminded me that when I started the book, because I was very busy I was reading it only intermittently and had had the same reaction, but that later, when I had more time and was able to settle into the book, I had become entranced. Doug said that now that he remembered, he had had exactly the same experience. We were very glad we had persisted, and those of us who had read the book were very glad to have done so.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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