John Self

Say Nothing

Milkman

By

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What is the best way to begin a book? Anna Burns, in her third novel, has gone for the now-read-on approach: ‘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.’ But if this sounds like an eye-catching opener up there with Iain Banks’s ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’, think again. Burns is not a crowd-pleaser; she’s more of the Van Morrison school, playing with her back to the audience. The narrative style in Milkman is screened and distorted through the mind of an eighteen-year-old girl in an unnamed city that’s almost certainly Belfast at the height of the Troubles (an elastic term, but the book is set in the early 1970s). It’s not so much a stream as an eddy of consciousness. Many sentences take several readings to approach comprehensibility: ‘By this he was discomfited but had faith that once she came to with the help of his improvised despotism, she would remember who she was and indignantly reclaim her something beyond the physical once again.’

The unnamed narrator reads a lot, arousing suspicion in her community by burying her head in 19th-century novels while walking the streets. Her voice, however, is less Zola than Yoda (‘Shifted too, my fears did’). But there is design in the awkward style, reflecting the confusion and dislocation of our narrator, damaged by the unwanted attentions of a local paramilitary leader, the titular milkman, who is not a real milkman but a ‘befouler of young girls’. This throws her relationship with her ‘maybe-boyfriend’ (nobody in the novel is named) into chaos: ‘But now, since the milkman, any part of maybe-boyfriend coming towards me brought up in me mounting bouts of revulsion and a feeling that I might at any moment be sick.’

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