For all the simplicity of its setup, Milkman is a richly complex portrayal of a besieged community and its traumatized citizens, of lives lived within many concentric circles of oppression ... Among Burns’ singular strengths as a writer is her ability to address the topics of trauma and tyranny with a playfulness that somehow never diminishes the sense of her absolute seriousness ... The book’s long sentences, its penchant for the exhaustive, can at times be challenging, and there were stretches where I found its uncanny energies stagnated for too long. But it also seems clear to me that these insistent strategies are in service of the book’s mood of total claustrophobia, and that they contribute to, rather than diminish, its overall effectiveness ... There is a pulsating menace at the heart of the book, of which the title character is an uncannily indeterminate avatar, but also a deep sadness at the human cost of conflict ... For all the darkness of the world it illuminates, Milkman is as strange and variegated and brilliant as a northern sunset. You just have to turn your face toward it, and give it your full attention.
Burns’s agenda is not to unpack the dreary tribal squabbles that so characterised Troubles-era Northern Ireland; rather she is working in an altogether more interesting milieu, seeking answers to the big questions about identity, love, enlightenment and the meaning of life for a young woman on the verge of adulthood ... in its intricate domestic study of a disparate family there are agreeable echoes of Chekov, Tolstoy and Turgenev ... it is an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars.
...it’s clearly part of Burns’s project in Milkman to redescribe the Troubles without using such terms as ‘the Troubles’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘RUC’ and ‘British army’ and ‘IRA’. On the other, the narrator’s mad, first-principles language, with its abundance of phrases in inverted commas and sudden changes of register, is also used to describe the inner world of a young woman ... It’s a brilliant rhetorical balancing act, and the narrator can be very funny ... What’s extraordinary about all this, though easy to overlook on a first reading, at least until the final stretch, is the density and tightness of the plotting behind the narrator’s apparently rambling performance ... What’s more, the comic unfolding of the plot runs counter to the narrator’s pinched sense of what can and can’t be said and done in her neighbourhood, and, after a chilling final encounter with the milkman, there’s a darkly happy ending ... as a reader you feel you’ve earned the novel’s more optimistic resolution, and that Burns, with her wild sentences and her immense writerly discipline, has too.
A useful point of comparison, doubling as a compliment and a caveat, is with Samuel Beckett. Next to nothing happens in Milkman, yet Ms. Burns, like the novel’s many gossips, constructs a monument from middle sister’s digressive, repetitive, idle, sardonic, amused and amusing talk. The story doesn’t advance so much as thicken, reaching a critical mass of absurdist misapprehensions. The bright thread of exasperated sarcasm that runs through the narrative compensates for its wheel-spinning. Ms. Burns, while frank about the brutality of the state forces, is refreshingly disrespectful to the insurgents.
Burns’s genius lies in entirely renouncing the classic truth-discovery plot. Detective work—even at its most Miss Marple, most feminine and unassuming—is completely unavailable to middle sister ... There were times reading Milkman when I thought I would get a cramp from laughing, but it is hard to do justice to the book’s humor in a review because much of it comes from the sheer length of characters’ speeches and of grown-up middle sister’s own free-wheeling, digressive, retrospective narration ... What’s exhilarating about reading ma is that, although we know she would not use words such as 'vermifuge,' by heaping 'vermifuge' on top of 'do I have to spell it out?,' Burns gets us right on board with the shock and disapproval, even while we are laughing ... The novel is carried by the extraordinary dynamism of middle sister’s voice, full of syntactically vertiginous constructions and new coinages...
There’s nothing like a striking beginning, and 'The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died' isn’t bad ... an eccentric and oddly beguiling novel ... what makes it memorable is the funny, alienated, common-sensical voice of middle sister.
...strange and intriguing ... [Anna Burns] is excellent at evoking the strange ecosystem that emerges during protracted conflict ... Milkman calls to mind several seminal works of Irish literature. In its digressive, batty narrative voice, it resembles a novel cited by the narrator: Tristram Shandy ... But for all the comparisons, Milkman has its own energy, its own voice ... Despite the surreality, everything about this novel rings true ... original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique.
This brilliant and unsettling novel from Irish author Anna Burns is a shaggy dog story – digressive, full of oddball incident and intellectual whimsy ... Milkman is compelling contemporary Irish fiction, canvassing dark material and difficult themes through a vivid, smart and loquacious narrative voice.
Burns, a Belfast native, makes an audacious narrative decision, giving us a telling peek at her titular villain’s fate in the book’s first sentence. Her prose is equally daring. She invents her own colloquialisms ...and her dialogue is often subtly hilarious ... Dramatic events occur, but the flash-bang of urban combat stays in the background. To Burns, what matters most are her working-class lead character’s daily struggles, which are related in bold, dynamic language ... This is a powerful, funny and sometimes immensely beautiful novel, with a female lead whose life is a low-key renunciation of the violence that shook her city for a generation.
... brutally intelligent ... Middle sister's voice is wonderful: knowing, sideways, deeply interior, ungrammatical, full of lists and wanderings, by turns demotic and mock-grand ... At its core, Milkman is a wildly good and true novel of how living in fear limits people.
[Milkman is] the last great novel of the year. Possibly the most challenging one, too ... Lovers of modernist fiction by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — I know you’re out there, waiting for a book to slake your thirst for something strange and complex — Milkman is for you ... The counterweight to [the novel's] grim predicament is the narrator’s irrepressible wit ... The narrator’s thick patter, with its long sentences and infrequent paragraph breaks, rings with such a curious sound. It’s as though the intense pressure of this place has compressed the elements of comedy and horror to produce some new alloy.
Stripping key details from the scrim of her prose allows Burns an enormous degree of freedom in her narration. It re-centers this book away from a chronicle of the heavily debated and squarely onto her narrator ... Burns instantly captures the many unnerving ways the times made it hard for the narrator to speak back. How she was trapped within a system of social queues that stoppered her mouth ... Page by page, its narrator takes in a big lungful of narrative air and spins out one gorgeous, syntactically perfect loop of story after another. This a dense, musical book that sounds in the head like a symphony played by a soloist whose dazzling energy and elliptical progression create the unusual feeling of there being a crowd of musicians producing its rich sound ... Nowhere is the book more powerful on this topic than when it deals with shame ... And yet...this book is also bursting with energy, with tiny apertures of kindness, and a youthful kind of joy ... On that, too, perhaps especially so, Milkman is a triumph of resistance.
Burns expands this material into a willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel, one that circles and circles its subject matter, like a dog about to sit, while rarely seizing upon any sort of clarity or emotional resonance. I found Milkman to be interminable, and would not recommend it to anyone I liked ... the repetitions, the piling up of extraneous detail, the dashes within dashes, the sense she instills in her readers of craving verbs the way an animal craves salt [is representative of Burns' style in Milkman] ... The best thing in Milkman is Burns’s occasionally sensitive portrait of this young woman’s flickering consciousness ... Sometimes her pile-on sentences achieve a prickly, shambolic sort of grace ... Milkman requires so much effort for so modest a result.
The book dissects what the alloy of nationalism, survivalism, and vengeance does to a society, and how it can mold the psyches of its members ... Burns's novel has been described as 'experimental,' 'baffling,' and 'challenging,' none of which quite describe this singular, hypnotic novel. It tugs you like an undertow into the rhythms of its narrator’s mind ... The result is an uncanny narrative, one that is dreamlike and claustrophobic, hovering just above history ... The violence is...ignored, but it can’t be entirely blocked out; it echoes in the story like an animal yowling far away. Burns achieves this through the horrifying, darkly funny asides her narrator rattles off like stones from a slingshot ... Milkman is a book about what happens when something—a person, a cause, or a community—demands your entire soul, and demands it not from a position of power but from the desperate edge of survival.
... magnetic ... It is not a book for everyone. Not everyone will like it. But everyone should read it ... Nobody ever said Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Mann, or James are for the faint of heart. Milkman falls into that company ... Milkman vibrates. It is energized with a perspective that immerses the reader in a setting that commands attention. It resonates because of the symbiotic interplay of its characters. Its language soars. It would be the same story if it were written in blood. And, in some ways, it is.
Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, which won the Man Booker prize this week, is a tough read ... mainly because of its wilfully inelegant prose style. Prepare for repetition, circumlocution and paragraphs stretching over pages (plus the fact that none of the characters has a name) ... This could all have been said much more snappily. The novel has been called 'experimental,' but Burns’s laboured stream-of-consciousness prose doesn’t depart radically from the century-old tradition of literary modernism ... By picking Milkman as the winner of the Man Booker prize, the judges have confirmed the recent tendency to see novels as status-markers rather than joyful, life-changing entertainments ... the view from the top of Mount Milkman is pretty cloudy.
Milkman is a deft and triumphant work of considerable intelligence and importance. It is a deeply feminist work, a compelling and significant look at how the regular life of a young woman is intimately used for personal and political gain. And it is told originally. The voice isn’t so much eccentric and odd as strong and unique and honest — yes, the narration is like none you’ve read. That alone is its triumph ... The other triumph of Milkman is our narrator’s presentation of the troubles of being a woman — not just in a violent society torn apart by what is essentially a form of war ... Middle Sister is a force. She is a modern heroine. She is blisteringly observant of some pretty necessary truths about the state of a woman’s life and attempt to find her own agency. So what that her internalized narration is unsettling and unfamiliar at first? The reader should treasure the invitation to follow along with her brilliant train of thought.
Seething with black humor and adolescent anger at the adult world and its brutal absurdities, Milkman wedges itself too deeply in middle sister’s psyche to resemble a wandering city novel like Ulysses. Instead, the way that Burns’s clauses trace the switchbacking self-consciousness of social life in her community recalls the mental torments that often seize David Foster Wallace’s characters ... A novelist can get lost in such labyrinths, but the saving grace of Milkman is a tensile story line involving the title character, a forty-one-year-old married local who’s reputed to be a major player in the paramilitary groups ... For a novel about life under multifarious forms of totalitarian control—political, gendered, sectarian, communal—Milkman can be charmingly wry.
The prose brings into focus feelings more than facts ... The prose, its recursive rhythms, its endless deferring, expresses the doubt, the wariness, the shame, the 'What’s the point? There’s no point' that consume middle sister ... Free of names and places and time lines, Burns can dispense with the deadfalls of more conventional historical fiction to foreground internal experience, a consciousness reeling amid oppressive conditions and long-term violence, arms out in front, grasping for something solid to lean up against and steady her stance. There is a relentlessness to the monologues, and even in their more repetitious moments they always express something greater than the words they are made of. This is the reward of the novel.
Milkman is a novel about The Troubles, but from the inside. There’s plenty of loathing for those 'over the water,' and boys who dig up other people’s gardens to hide their guns, but there are no names. Instead, we experience sectarian strife through the life of middle sister, who feels social politics much more intensely than the governmental kind. It manifests in the rigid gender norms of her community, and those norms’ aggressive—at times murderous—policing ... the plot is confusing, and middle sister’s language more confusing still...the lack of proper names in Milkman are a chief agent of its confusion ... Milkman is an explosive novel, very much of history but not limited by the names, dates, and places of the official record. It’s a more intimate work than that, and an outstanding contribution to the growing canon of nameless girl heroes.
... a very fine novel about a fully realized character living in particular time and place ... Milkman is not an easy read and, to be honest, the narrative seems, at times, to be awfully slow; yet it pays off. Even the slowness pays off, gradually laying down layers and layers of feeling as incidents accumulate, as the narrator’s circumstances mutate, and as the plot veers off in unexpected directions. In the end, I, at least, felt a certain joy...
Let us now praise difficult books: the ones whose refusal to play by the conventional rules of form and storytelling confound and dazzle us, and maybe even aim to drive us a little bit mad ... Milkman is a strange animal; it asks a lot, but gives something back, too: the electric jolt of a voice that feels utterly, sensationally new.
...doesn’t meet the criteria we’ve come to expect from award-winning books ... she scrubs her plot of grounding details, inviting the reader to draw connections between her past and our present. And her characters’ struggles are timely ... It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare the novel’s handling of public brutality to the experience of living in the world today: After so much of the same, our collective grief flatlines into something more like depression. It begins to seem false — and even naïve — to describe disgusting acts with disgusted language, because disgusted language feels hackneyed ... Through Middle Sister’s misadventures, Burns manages to create a world where nebulous power games are as painful to live with as a black eye, though tragically invisible. This is the book’s strength, but it also makes for a dense — and at times unrewarding — reading experience ... a novel is a curious medium for a character devoid of a rich inner life ... Static as Milkman can often feel, there are a few moments where Burns suggests that change is possible.
Anna Burns' Milkman... is not an easy read ... But from the first alarming sentence, Burns offers a riveting, breathless rhythm that she maintains throughout the book ... this coming-of-age tale is original, timely, and ultimately rewarding ... Despite the presumed setting with its very specific history, Milkman is a timeless and universal story, one that ends with a bit of light shining in... 9/10
Milkman is a dense, claustrophobic and paranoid novel that traffics in rumor, innuendo and hearsay—all of which can be as oppressive as any totalitarian regime ... Milkman is a strange, stirring and, at times, overwhelming novel about the extremes of sectarianism. It’s also a cautionary tale of what can happen to a society when its inhabitants see themselves in terms of 'us' and 'them.'
As Milkman’s predations intensify, Burns’s compulsively maximalist prose careens like the speech of someone as sure of themselves as they are unsure of what’s about to come out of their mouth. In their contortions, repetitions, and evasions, her sentences come to resemble the avoidant behaviors of middle sister herself ... In Milkman, Burns’s canniest trick might be reversing the logic that so alienates her narrator, whose private, indefinite pain is subsumed by the public violence of the Troubles.
... a blistering feminist perspective on a community at war. With an immense rush of dazzling language, Burns submerges readers beneath the tensions of life in a police state ... A deeply stirring, unforgettable novel that feels like a once-in-a-generation event.