Award-winning books are rarely my cup of tea, because of the simple fact that I find my taste varying from the taste of most self-respecting juries by quite a margin. If I have to be completely frank, I find most award-winning books to be unnecessarily convoluted in their telling of the tale, exploring excellent themes in a way which would have been better with a dash of simplicity and less literal dexterity. In my defense, The Old Man & The Sea, a book better than most of the ones I have read and a Nobel Prize winner, is one of my absolute favorites because of the simplicity with which it dives into some of the most existential themes put to paper (and in 100 pages).
Milkman is not a simple book. It suffers from many of the flaws which have put me off reading Man Booker Prize winners in the past. Anna Burns uses a sentence structure straight which can have only been conceived by Satan himself, and refuses to give any of her characters names. Instead, each character is only named in relation to the narrator, who herself remains nameless. It does not help that the way each sentence and paragraph is framed reflects the narrator’s own, hyperactive, rushed thinking. Add to this the fact that Milkman seeks to explore around 100 themes in 300 pages and you have a book that is difficult to read, difficult to keep track of and difficult to enjoy. It is all over the place and it rarely gives the author enough of a straight run without making him jump from one track to another. In other words, Milkman is written exactly in the way real life works. Which is what makes it truly disturbing.
Perhaps that is exactly why I enjoyed Milkman. It’s rare that a book challenges a seasoned reader to truly struggle to interpret it. We are so used to easily flying through books that a piece of writing such as this comes as a breath of fresh air, in that poses a challenge to the pace of even the most ardent readers (and what do we hate more than reading slowly, right?). The very thing that should be Milkman’s downfall, however, is what elevates it from being yet another book about the tragedy of personal lives in a very public historical struggle (The Irish Troubles, which serve as the backdrop for the narrative and have also spawned some great songs such as Zombie, Sunday Bloody Sunday etc.) to a much more personal experience. The rushed style of writing serves to transport the reader straight into the mind of the narrator, and voila! Her struggles, her fears, her dreams, her expectations and her relationships suddenly become ours. If an author can achieve that, the book can never be not worth reading.
That is the core of Milkman. That is what makes the book worth putting aside hours and hours of your time and spend reading. Everything else comes next. And the book does exceedingly well on other things as well. A book is not made of narrative alone. It is made on what it wants to explore. And Milkman touches upon so many themes that the mind boggles somewhere mid-way through the experience.
Feminism, Patriarchy, Power, Abuse, Stalking, Violence, Harassment, Nationalism, Societal Identity, Conformism and Fear of anything different are some of the many themes that Anna Burns touches upon in the book. These themes would have each warranted a book, to be honest, given the depth to which they have the potential to go, but in this case, they have a single, profound thread tying them all together.ly, for they rescue us from the boredom of everyday life and from human longing.
The Troubles, which forms the background against which this story is told, is that thread. The rise of all those themes and the narrator’s existential struggle with them is all encompassed within the strife of a war no one wants, and no one knows how to live without. The story of a town torn by war and has no resort but to live out their uninteresting lives through gossip and spreading rumors is possible because every dream is feared, and every dream is feared because of the impossibility of achieving that dream, living in the times they survive in. Conformism is not a choice, it’s a compulsion, because conformism is the only thing that will keep them sane and protect against aspirations that are sure to be crushed. The sky is blue always, because admitting that there might be another color there or a multitude of colors there will be to admit that there may be a way of life different from what they have been living and to do that would be to open themselves to disappointment, depression and death.
Milkman is, above everything else, a book about the struggle of the human mind to survive and the desire of the human heart to truly live!
Books such as these go only as deep as the reader wants them to go. Milkman can be a simple story of girl who is stalked by a creep and the effect it has on her relationships with her family and friends. It can be a story of a traditional society and repression struggling against modernity and success. It can be the story of how power corrupts everyone and how we are liable to commit the gravest of sins and justify them in the name of the two absolute pillars of morality – religion and nation. It can be the story of how we prefer to remain stagnant and numb in our inertia instead of risking momentum and finding ourselves at risk, of how we would rather survive than live.
Milkman can be any of the above. It can be anything else you wish it to be. With books like these, the constraint isn’t on the pages. The constraint is only the reader’s mind and how much it can dive into the pages. This is a book which is definitely worth a read, perhaps more than one read. It challenges the reader through its structure and hooks the explorer through its plot. You will find yourself wanting to tear yourself away and you will find yourself failing at it.
The true tragedy of the book isn’t on its pages. The tragedy is, when you realize as you read, that we are still essentially living in The Troubles, with all its nationalism, jingoisms, religious animosity and extremism and consequent violence. It’s when you realize that decades later, humanity is still doing what it does best – dividing itself on imagined grounds and using it for power.
As Dolores O’Riordan wrote in Zombie, “It’s the same old theme since 1916…”
Reviewed by: Aniruddha Rege