Milkman by Anna Burns x2

This book is sooooo good. It was totally deserving of the Man Booker Prize for 2018 and so I have to give it a 10 this time (understanding there are no perfect books). I’m reading it because I’m the leader for the group read at the Booker Prize Group.

I don’t have a whole lot to add to my prior review (here) except to say that I understand the reasons for nameless characters better – or at least what their being nameless adds:

by Anna Burns
2018 /
read by Brid Brennan 14h 11m
rating: 10 – contemp. fiction

  1. First, not using actual names for the other countries and areas could simply be the characters not wanting to give those places the dignity of mentioning them by name.
  2. The pseudo-names the narrator uses for virtually all the characters makes keeping them all straight easier for the reader because the way Burns does it is to give their relationship to the narrator clear . This is like “third brother-in-law” or of “maybe-boyfriend” and “third brother” (she comes from a large family.). But even “milkman” and “tablets girl” are descriptors and tell the reader something about them which is explained.
  3. The namelessness increases the possibility of the story being an allegory because the reader is distanced from many of their specifics.

I think there has been some criticism about the plot but it’s not one single arc. There are all sorts of adventures and misadventures which occur between the narrator’s first encounter with milkman and her third and last.

There is a huge satirical element to the book which I’ve not seen much written about. Nothing is sacred – not even the women’s movement which comes into play.

Here are a few of the questions I’ve prepared but may not use – you can tell a lot about the book from this.

1.   A friend asks you what you’re reading and you tell her it’s Milkman by Anna Burns.  She then asks you what it’s about.   What do you say? 

2.   Why do you think Burns leaves the characters unnamed –  in an interview she said “they just didn’t need naming.”  Is that good enough for you? Can you think of why they might not need naming?  How did a bunch of unnamed characters affect your reading? 

3.  Talk about the protagonist, an unnamed 18-year old girl in a difficult situation – what’s she like? Do you “like” her?   How about ma, maybe-boyfriend, milkman?  Others?  

4.  In an interview (somewhere) Burns said there is a kind of allegory involved in the tale.  Did you pick up on that?  In what way?  Does any of it relate to our world in the 2nd decade of the 21st century? 

5.  What is the point of the sunset scenes and the color blue?  (This is early on in Chapter 3 especially, but mentioned other places – other events – but it reverberates through the book – what is it you perceive and why?).

6.  BookBrowse observed that “Milkman” is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive.”   Can you explain how this is true?   

7.  Claire Armistead (the Guardian) called Burns’ novel  “boldly experimental.”  Do you agree?  In what way is it “experimental?” –   Is awarding Milkman the prize for 2018 a step up or a step down for the Man Booker?  7.  What part does “rumour, assumption, gossip” play in the novel?  

8.  What part does humor play in the novel?    

9.  Why do we read hard books?   Is Milkman a “hard” book?  Why?  What makes it hard?  What words/adjectives would you use to describe Milkman –  pretentious, fun, insightful, moving, brilliant (?),  

10. Memorable scenes?   

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2 Responses to Milkman by Anna Burns x2

  1. You and I have discussed Milkman extensively in the Booker Prize group. I thought you did a great job leading the discussion and that your questions were well-put. You know my favorite characters are the three “wee sisters”, tiny little self-educated geniuses apparently. In all I thought Milkman was superb. Thanks, Becky!


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