Book Corner 2020.5

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Milkman by Anna Burns

I was very glad to see this book end.

It’s dense, first-person, and rather stream-of-consciousness. One paragraph will frequently span a page. And the subject matter is tough – life in a Northern Ireland city under the IRA, or “renouncers” as they are strictly called here. As tough as the renouncers themselves are, the entire community serves as a kind of character itself, enforcing rules and behaviors on what seems every aspect of people’s existence. It was absolutely vicariously stultifying to read. While nobody is allowed to give their baby the wrong name, or be seen with the wrong person or live in the wrong district, the town seems perfectly willing to tolerate lunatics and murderers in their midst – not only the renouncers, but garden-variety nutjobs, too.

An extremely obtrusive gimmick of the story is that absolutely nobody is named by name. Everyone is referred to by shorthand nicknames, relationships, and birth order. This intensifies the feeling of the unimportance of the individual in the midst of a community where conformity is all-consuming.

There is plot, and there is character, so as a novel it was not as much of a slog as some modernist tomes. And there is catharsis – but what was perhaps most annoying, towards the end as the plot is winding down, you finally want to start breathing freely like the narrator; and suddenly, we zip back in time a couple of weeks with a pretty silly subplot. That just put me over the edge of dislike; I haven’t been so happy to finally reach the end of a book in some time.

And silly subplots there are, but it was usually hard to laugh at the humor, couched as it was in the middle of difficult subject matter, and a narrator having a nervous breakdown most of the time. ( )

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