I’ll admit, it took me quite a while to finish this book. While that doesn’t sound like a rave review, I don’t blame Milkman. This was a book that required a certain amount of attention, a certain buy-in if you will. The style of the writing and the format of the story meant that it wasn’t easy to dip in and out of. As a reader, I had to be focused and alert and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Our narrator is unnamed, as are most of the characters. She’s eighteen years old, living in an unnamed country full of troubles and political instability, particularly when it comes to relations with the country “over there”. This is obviously Ireland but the unnamed quality of it all means that many countries or political situations can be seen in this story.
For me, this was the overall strength of Milkman which, I felt, was really a story about a young woman and how the world around her controlled her choices and actions. Ireland and the Troubles made for a unique and powerful setting but the issues that face our narrator were, at their heart, ones faced by young women all over the world and all through time.
Our narrator lives with her widowed mother and her three “wee sisters”. She has older brothers and sisters, at least one deceased, and with varying involvement with the “renouncers”. Her mother is putting pressure on her to get married but she keeps her “maybe-boyfriend” a secret and is unable to pursue a real relationship with him. She’s an oddball in her neighbourhood, partially due to her habit of reading while walking. One day she attracts the attention of a man known as Milkman, a powerful leader in the paramilitary. He begins following her and everyone arounds her believes they are involved, despite the fact she’s never spoken to him. Her standing in the community changes and it’s fascinating to watch this develop. How she relates to those around her and how they relate to her, including her own family.
Early on in the novel there is a scene where the narrator realizes she cannot go running by herself anymore because the Milkman will find her and follow her. While the situation here is unique, the reality of a young woman feeling unsafe in her regular activities is painfully familiar. As is the attitude that follows her that she must have wanted his attention, must be enjoying it or benefiting from it.
Yes, the book felt long. Overall, I thought the lack of names worked well in the context of the story but it did get confusing at times, especially when I took breaks in my reading. I’m still not quite sure how many brothers and sisters the narrator had. At the same time, it reveals something about the power of names (and there’s an interesting diversion into acceptable and unacceptable names within their community) and the reveal towards the end about a character’s true name is also an interesting statement.
I’m not surprised this won the Man Booker Prize last year. Timely is a word that gets thrown around a lot about books these days and it’s strange to call a book set approximately forty years ago “timely” but it still feels apt. If you have the space to devote some time and attention to Milkman, I recommend it.