Milkman is the 2018 Booker Prize winner which follows the meandering thoughts and experiences of an 18 year old girl living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We follow her as she comes of age in a small town where she is faced with the fast-spreading rumour that she is involved in an affair with Milkman, a highly respected (and incredibly dangerous) local paramilitary.
Usually I love a book that isn’t very plot focused, but this is not the way to describe Milkman. While Milkman is a meandering novel with nothing too significant happening in it, the narrative is actually full of plot, with the reader being led into the everyday occurrences of the town. It meandered, jumped in time, skipped over details, and the nicknames the narrator uses for characters were nothing if not jarring. There were times I’d read a passage and think, “what was the point of that?” Even with hindsight on my side, I still couldn't tell you.
I also found the protagonist to be a very passive narrator. She mostly just let things happen to her. This is explained through how her word is never believed above the rumours that are spread about her, but I was really hoping that by the end of the novel she would be able to find her voice. My favourite aspects of the book include the discussions surrounding feminist movements of the period and the local women’s clubs that came out of it, as well as the status of the paramilitaries within the community. I also liked how the rumours and small-town politics are magnified against the wider political issues going on throughout the country. But ultimately these discussions felt surface-level when nothing about the town or the situation of the women changed at all within the narrative. While it acknowledged some of the issues facing the women, there isn’t any real development or sense of reflection, so this fell a little flat for me.
To sum up, I don’t think Milkman is a bad read, but it’s not revolutionary either. Although it took me a while to get through, I did find myself invested in the story by the end. Undeniably, Burns’ writing is clever and intricate, so I can certainly see why it won the Booker. I think my biggest issue with this book was that I just didn’t get that much out of it. For the amount of time and concentration I spent on it, I expected to be more entertained and informed than I was. Not awful, just not worth it in my opinion. However, if you’re into literary fiction and/or Irish lit, definitely still give it a go. A lot of people seem to love Milkman a lot more than I did.