Cream of the crop

The star­tling orig­i­nal­ity de­liv­ered by Milk­man more than jus­ti­fies its Man Booker win.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By ANNA ROGERS

It’s much quoted, but the be­gin­ning of Ron­ald Hugh Mor­rieson’s The Scare­crow – “The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Mo­ran had her throat cut” – is a great first line for a book. So is this: “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.” That’s the open­ing sen­tence of Irish writer Anna Burns’ star­tling new novel, Milk­man, which has just won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. The books have lit­tle else in com­mon, apart from a macabre black

hu­mour and a mem­o­rable first-per­son nar­ra­tor. In Mor­rieson’s novel we know al­most im­me­di­ately that Neddy Poin­dex­ter is in charge of the tale, but this isn’t the case with Burns.

And it’s not just the fe­male nar­ra­tor, known as mid­dle sis­ter, who re­mains name­less. Ev­ery­one else is iden­ti­fied only by so­cial or fam­ily po­si­tion – wee sis­ters, ma, maybe boyfriend and, cen­trally

A map for sur­vival in a world where any­thing sane and ra­tio­nal be­comes ex­actly the op­po­site.

and sin­is­terly, the milk­man (some­times Milk­man). The city of the novel is also un­named, though its di­vi­sions, sus­pi­cions and ca­sual vi­o­lence, the ref­er­ences to bor­ders and the place across the wa­ter, re­nounc­ers and paramil­i­taries, and the swing and sway of the lan­guage, iden­tify it as 1970s Belfast. The 18-year-old pro­tag­o­nist is al­ready dan­ger­ously un­usual, in a world where com­pli­ance and obe­di­ence are all, but then come the ru­mours, started by first brother-in-law, about her and the para­mil­i­tary milk­man, who is stalk­ing her in his white van. She’s al­ready guilty of other crimes, apart from a dis­turb­ing fond­ness for read­ing while walk­ing. Long­est friend is at pains to ex­plain to her “how no one should go around in a po­lit­i­cal scene with their head switched off”.

The in­creas­ingly threat­en­ing and crazy swirl of hearsay, gos­sip and fab­ri­ca­tion is con­veyed in many-phrased sen­tences and ex­tremely long para­graphs. Some­times you need to take a few deep breaths. But she never loses con­trol and that com­pelling, clever nar­ra­tive voice and sur­real at­mos­phere are hard to for­get.

This is kind of a map for ne­go­ti­at­ing ter­ror and prej­u­dice, for sur­viv­ing in a world where right and wrong are vi­ciously and pre­cisely de­fined but not al­ways ap­par­ent, where any­thing sane or ra­tio­nal be­comes ex­actly the op­po­site. It’s also of­ten ex­tremely funny.

“Orig­i­nal” is a sadly overused word, but in this case it’s more than jus­ti­fied. Milk­man may have been even more pow­er­ful if it were shorter, with some rein­ing in of its head­long style, but it’s a re­mark­able novel, born of ex­tra­or­di­nary ta­lent and imag­i­na­tion. And al­though Burns takes us to dark places, she never ex­tin­guishes hope.

MILK­MAN, by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, $32.99)

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