Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Milkman is about an unnamed girl in an unnamed town. When a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be.
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.
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.
...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.