Let us now praise difficult books: the ones whose refusal to play by the conventional rules of form and storytelling confound and dazzle us, and maybe even aim to drive us a little bit mad. The choice to give this year’s Man Booker Prize to Milkman has not been universally praised; many readers found Anna Burns’ novel — narrated by a nameless young woman in an unspecified place, most likely late-1970s Northern Ireland — almost willfully impossible to find a way into. Her writing pours down the page in great whorls and torrents, dense and incantatory, with only the most incidental breaks for chapters and paragraphs. Her characters don’t have proper names, or even definite articles: There is maybe-boyfriend, longest friend, wee sisters — and, of course, milkman.
It is the time of the Troubles, that politically incendiary era when every last thing signaled tribal fealty, or treason: “The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal… ‘Our shops’ and ‘their shops.’ Place names. What school you went to.” Burns’ narrator is a deliberate outsider to all that, though not for long — especially when a militia leader singles her out for his obtuse, obsessive affections. Milkman is a strange animal; it asks a lot, but gives something back, too: the electric jolt of a voice that feels utterly, sensationally new. A-
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