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Past Reads > Milkman by Anna Burns, chapters 4 to end

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George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
Please comment here on Milkman by Anna Burns, chapters 4 to end.

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
An intense, dense, powerful, thought provoking, sometimes humorous, memorable, original novel. It's not an easy read, with the constant same 'voice', long sentences and only internal dialogue. It's 347 pages but is more like a 450 page book. I found myself managing to read no more than 50 to 60 pages a day.

I thought the novel was a rewarding, overall entertaining reading experience. Burns effectively describes the paranoia, prejudice, fragile, violent community divided by class and religion. A rumour takes hold in the community and people act differently due to the rumour. For example, when middle sister walks into a chip shop, everyone in the line-up moves to let her through to the front counter, as they believe she is now Milkman's girl.

Irene | 522 comments I started this last night and read about 70 pages. You are right, not an easy read. The lack of names is jarring. It reminds me of listening to one of those modern symphonies; I can acknowledge the genius of the composer, the talent of the musicians, but I don't enjoy the experience. I find that, for the most part, I don't like the more experimental or speculative fiction or whatever term it is.

message 4: by George (last edited Apr 07, 2019 07:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
Yes, at first the lack of names is unsettling but I found that by the halfway mark I had become more acclimatised to no normal character names. By the end of the book some of the alternative descriptions fitted. I had to laugh when the real milkman is introduced and is called the real milkman. He is quite the opposite character to the Milkman - renouncer leader. I think some of the humour is in the names, for example, 'Somebody McSomebody'. I became used to the protagonist being called Middle Sister.

It's such an unusual reading experience. I kept thinking that Burns cannot continue with this style of narrative and keep the reader's interest, but she does, by introducing one surprising event after another. Burns is able to create a kind of suspense when writing about what appear on the surface to be fairly mundane life incidents. Reading while walking seems such an innocuous activity, but it has unsettling ramifications to Middle Sister.

I hope the reading experience gets better for you Irene. Sometimes there are books that just don't resonant for some readers. The book that comes to mind for me is George Saunders first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which I liked and appreciated but didn't think it was 'amazing or brilliant' as a number of readers did!

Irene | 522 comments I will stick with it and see how things go. The writing is excellent, so even though I can't say I am enjoying the ride right now, I am not irritated either.

I was not a fan of Lincoln In The Bardo either. I found all the endless passages from primary ssources tedious and overdone.

Irene | 522 comments Read another 80 pages last night. All the tangential musings are dragging at the story for me. Of course, it does not help that I can't sit down to read until after 10 PM.

So, I get the significance of the car parts, that even the most innocuous and nutral item is neither innocuous nor nutral in this community; everything from a boy's name to what car you work on signifies political alliances and identifies where you belong socially. And the blue sky signifies the inability of people to see what is in front of them because they are programmed from youth to see things a certain way and are too frightened or too conventional to look and think for themselves. But what was the significance of wrapping up that severed cat head and looking for a suitable resting place? By that point, my eyes were glazing over, so I probably missed what was in front of my own eyes.

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
I like your comment of how people "are programmed from youth to see things a certain way and are too frightened or too conventional to look and think for themselves."

I think Burns does this so well. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation of Northern Ireland's struggle to change.

The severed cat head was a little weird. I think Middle Sister was so fixated on giving the cat a 'proper' burial. Doing things the 'proper' way seems to be all important to the people in this community.

When I stated I read 50 - 60 pages a day, it was not all in one go. I read more like 10 - 20 pages at a given time. Whenever I am reading what I find a 'difficult read', I usually have a lighter book that I read to break up the intensity! (In this case it was Zadie Smith's Feel Free, a very well written collection of essays on a variety of topics).

Irene | 522 comments I read chapter 4 last night. I am a bit confused if the Milkman is actually a threat to the narrator or if the rumor mill and her own fears and prejudices are seeing a threat in a nutral situation. Everything is with innuendo filtered through her mind. He does not actually do anything. Of course, this is part of the issue, because of the atmosphere, one does not actually have to do anything, just hint. Still, I can't tell if the threat is all in her head and in the tongues of others or if he is actually a menace.

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
He wants her to be his girlfriend. His way of making that happen is to be persuasive. His way to have this happen is not to ask her, rather it is to convince her that she has no alternative other than to be his girlfriend. There are some memorable events that occur on this issue in the second half of the novel.

Irene | 522 comments I will keep reading.

Irene | 522 comments I am up to page 300. I would like to finish tonight. I am wondering about the choice to use relational titles rather than personal names and to avoid any specific place names. I suppose that the use of relational designations shows that the communal trumps the personal, that how one is related to others is more important than one's individual identity. I am wondering if the avoiding of specific place names, despite the fact that it is clearly Northern Ireland, is to try to make the story universal. If that is the case, it is not working for me. The use of titles, the obscuring of the location, the odd way the author is forced to speak in order to accommodate this, gives this a mythical or fantacy feel for me. Rather than universal, it feels unreal. I am really struggling to get through this one.

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
The story gave me a greater appreciation for what it must have been like to live in Northern Ireland during that violent time. However there are parts of the story that reminded me of universal domestic situations. For example, Middle Sister's view of her mother, sisters and the people around her and how she behaves towards her mother are not unique to the Northern Ireland domestic situation.

Anna Burns states in an article in The Guardian dated 10 November 2018, "The book didn't work with names...It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser - or perhaps just a different - book. In the early days I tried out names a few times, but the book wouldn't stand for it. The narrative would become heavy and lifeless and refuse to move on until I took them out again."

In the Irish Times, 16 October 2018 it is stated, "Reviews have praised the effectiveness of its most notable characteristic: the erasure of specific names in favour of a surreally generic set of signposts. They laud its humanism, its condemnation of tribalism and inner-community surveillance and control, as well as its attention to the still underplayed dynamics of gender inequality during the Troubles, in particular women's vulnerability to a predatory violence at once psychological and physical.....Reviewers have seen its erasure of names as an ascent to "universalism", a portrayal of any "Totalitarian" society at any time, anywhere. While that may be true, those who know the place in which it is assumed to be set, and who-presumably like the author - have some degree of distance from it, recognize a reality that is encapsulated by the absurdist-generic names rather than transcended by them. Ardoyne, where Anna Burns is from, was always an anomalous yet sharply-defined district.... "

Irene | 522 comments I finished this last night.

Thank you for these passages from articles about the book. I am intrigued by Burns saying that names made it heavy and lifeless. I would like to try it with names. I found that the language felt odd. I attributed it to the need to avoid proper nouns, but maybe that was not the case. I would agree that it had a surreal quality and I think it was this quality that kept me distanced from the characters and the story line. I agree with you that much of this book had universal conflicts from the mother-daughter dynamics to the discontent with marriage partners, from the oppressive power of social condemnation to the gender inequality. Unfortunately, I never felt as if I were inhabiting this story, this world, but rather that I was deing educated or preached to through the book. It was an interesting read but it never got inside me and so lost something in the reading experience.

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
I can understand your feelings of being distant from the characters. I felt the same. I kept thinking, "why do you people stay there? Why don't you leave?" No one should have to put up with living in such conditions. People are not allowed to be their true selves. They have to have their defences up most of the time. Accordingly as readers we see mostly unfriendly, flawed characters.

Milkman is a unique, uneasy, difficult reading experience. Even so, I found it an ultimately rewarding reading experience. I gained a better understanding of how a community lives through the violence and oppression.

Irene | 522 comments I think this may be one of those books that stay with me for a while, that I will come to appreciate more with time than I enjoyed actually reading.

message 16: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John (kiwiinhove) | 4 comments I finished the book a few days ago. The last part was particularly amusing especially the mother and real milkman’s entanglement. The language in the book is amazing. A novel with no names and the paranoias of living in Belfast captured humorously, tragically and poignantly at times. The stories within stories, tablet girl, nuclear boy and of course the complicated family dynamic with wee sisters, ma, in laws and other sisters capturing the politics of families no matter where the location. Overall an entertaining and educating read.

George (georgejazz) | 455 comments Mod
Thanks for your comments John. It is certainly an educational and memorable read. I haven’t forgotten the novel and your comments helped me recall how clever this novel is. I just went back and read a couple of pages. I forgot how much the author packs into a page....the chip shop scene...the ramifications of reading whilst walking down the street...the two milkmen...her mum’s attitude to marriage...It’s a book I will aim to reread.

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