Book Review: Milkman

Unique narrator, troubles and mistrust

So it was, while standing in our kitchen digesting this bit of consequence, that I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man. And the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.

So Milkman has been on my to read list for what feels like forever. It seems to have won or have been nominated for every prize going, which I sometimes find isn’t a surefire guarantee of a book being good. That being said I am so glad that I did finally pick it up as part of a haul last month – along with Circe, The Silence of the Girls, VOX and the Water Cure.

(Which will of course feature on here at some point.)

This intriguing novel tells the story of Middle Sister and is set in an unnamed city in what can safely be assumed to be 1970s Northern Ireland. Our protagonist attracts the attention of the much older, and married, “Milkman” who gives the novel its title. Middle Sister tries desperately to avoid his persistent, and frankly creepy, advances whilst also attempting to keep her relationship with “maybe boyfriend” a secret from her family, and more importantly her community who are ever ready to gossip and condemn.

Despite trying to escape, or at least be deaf to, the political troubles which surround her Middle Sister becomes the subject of intense gossip which has dramatic consequences for her.

Firstly this book really is not like anything I have read before, the narrator has a completely unique voice – the stream of consciousness of a young woman growing up in one of the most difficult times in the modern history of the British Isles. This stream of consciousness allows you to immerse yourself in her thoughts and her experience of the world around her – its suspicions, the unspoken rules and subtext. As always with a stream of consciousness the reader’s view of events is restricted by the narrator, we see only what they do (or what they want us to see). Personally I think this was the right form of narration to have used – we see only glimpse of the violence (from both the parliamentary and state forces) and instead the reader has a view of the oppressive, gossipy and distrustful community.

Our narrator (the girl who walks and reads – the main crime she commits – worse than a supposed affair with a senior parliamentarian) is relatable, because what bookworm doesn’t escape their world by burying themselves in a good read. To ignore the world around her, to be purposefully unaware of her world is unacceptable to those around her, when your identity is designated by your allegiances.

Her world seems small – something again I felt was demonstrated through this single narration and her twisty, turny use of language – pages or paragraphs are lost in her inner workings of her mind – personally I was so wrapped up in the prose that I didn’t notice that the narrative had not moved forward or that I didn’t know much about the physical space she occupied. Did this trouble me? A little, yes but then I prefer to know a little more about the world which characters inhabit. That’s my personal preference though and I appreciated the narrative device.

There is always a feeling of oppression, throughout the course of the novel, the dark and threatening presence of Milkman and all he represents. The greater threat seems to be the perceptions of the community whose gossip can condemn individuals, where juries can be made up not only of parliamentary men but of your neighbours and friends. Our narrator finds herself hemmed in by patriarchy, by religion and by the narrowness of the expectations placed upon her – in a place where dreaming, being different, and reaching for more sets you apart. And you do not want to seem as being “apart”, or worse, as “interesting”. You always have the sense that something is going to happen to her, which of course it does.

The prose is quirky and funny, a welcome escape from this sense of oppression. This lightness doesn’t take anything away from this nor from the political situation (something which I confess I knew nothing about) but rather humanises it.

As you’d expect from a book which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this is a powerful and different female voice. Throughout the course of the novel you again see how women are oppressed but at times this to their advantage. They are frequently above suspicion from both sides of the political and religious divide, as they are “just women” and do manage to use unique forms of protest to exact change or stand up for the vulnerable.

As for that official ‘male and female’ territory, and what females could say and what they could never say, I said nothing when the Milkman curbed, then slowed, then stopped my running.

Final Thoughts: I’ve really thought about this for a while, and if you’d have asked me what I thought of the book after the first few pages I’d have told you to steer clear. Having read so many good reviews online I persevered and I am so glad that I did because I did really enjoy it. If you like stories with unique narration, a stream of consciousness and getting an understanding of a character’s psychology then this is the book for you. The language can take a little bit of getting used to, but it soon becomes a real pleasure to read.

For me it was fascinating to read about a period of British history which I knew very little about.

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