Somehow, Milkman slipped past me. When the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist was announced in July, I was ecstatic to see a graphic novel (Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina) and exasperated to see the then-recent Golden Man Booker Prize winner, Michael Ondaatje, on it. A spot was wasted on Warlight by celebrating the same canon of writers cyclically, I thought.

Two months later, when a six-strong shortlist was squeezed out of the Booker Dozen, I, like many others, mourned the loss of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. In the days leading up to the day of the prize ceremony, then, I was torn between Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black – cheering both books on, and confident that a woman would win this year. And so, when Anna Burns was named the first Northern Irish author, and the first female author since Eleanor Catton in 2013, to win the 50th Man Booker Prize for Fiction, it took me by surprise.

Bouquets and backlash

There had been that one message from a friend, shortly after the shortlist was revealed, who had called it “intense” but enjoyable. She was “hooked”, she’d said. But until it won what is arguably Britain’s premier, most prestigious literary prize, Milkman more or less slipped past me. Afterwards, as is tradition, the Booker backlash began.

The author and her award-winning book were saturated by and submerged in media coverage and uncalled-for social media criticism – the likes of which I can’t recall in the Booker’s recent history. In less than a fortnight, a 348-page novel was flattened to a handful of epithets: “unconventional”, “impenetrable”, “baffling”, “challenging”, “difficult”, “dense”. And so, Milkman, by which I mean the novel itself, slipped past me yet again.

This shorthand of sorts for the book has its roots in the judges’ comments. At the awards ceremony, the chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appah admitted that Milkman could be seen as “challenging but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top,” he said. “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard...Because of the flow of the language and the fact some of the language is unfamiliar, it is not a light read [but] I think it is going to last.”

These comments created a ripple effect in the literary circuit, and soon thereafter, a slew of response pieces followed. Since the newsy pieces on the night of the announcement (October 16, 2018), at least half a dozen in-defence-of style stories have featured in The Guardian alone. A recent one directly responds to unfounded assumptions that, while the book was a positively “bold” Booker choice, it was “unlikely to please booksellers”. As it turns out, Milkman had a record second week of sales after the prize announcement, with over 150,000 copies sold, according to the publishers Faber and Faber.

A hair-trigger society

It was in the dark shadow of this debate around the “difficulty” of the book that I began reading it. Questions about high-brow and low-brow literature; questions about serious literary fiction, “experimental” fiction, and “readable” fiction, indeed “sellable” fiction; and questions about what publishers should print, what booksellers could sell, and what readers would like orbited this year’s winning book.

It is noteworthy here that the last three Booker winners (George Saunders, Paul Beatty, Marlon James) – all male, and arguably all winning with “challenging” reads in their own right – were celebrated based on the same criteria Burns is being criticised for. An editor and reader recommended I tune it out – it was just noise. Eighty pages in, I wondered what the Booker brouhaha was about. When I saw a woman on the street clutching a copy of Milkman, I almost squealed in solidarity.

Milkman is set in an unnamed city (that may or may not be Belfast) during the Northern Irish Troubles. In what is thematically much-traversed territory in literature, Anna Burns’s approach stands out because she doesn’t take the overtly political avenue. Although she describes a “psycho-political atmosphere”, the violence lives on the peripheries of the pages, often even off them.

The story follows the eighteen-year-old protagonist narrator “middle sister”, who spends her days “reading-while-walking”, and who is herself followed, pursued, stalked by the “milkman” – even though “there was no milk about him” – a senior (41), suspected paramilitary figure. In a place with gossip galore, and with the “twisting of words” and the “fabrication of words” and the “exaggeration of words” that went on, it is not long before rumour spreads of an affair between the two (although the only relationship “middle sister” really is in is with her “maybe-boyfriend”).

However, she lives in a “hair-trigger society”; in a place where “where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there?”

Spaces and epithets

This makes Milkman sound like a story for the #metoo movement (judges and journalists have encouraged this reading). And in many ways, it is – seeing as it deals with silence and shame and the consequences of speaking out against sexual predators. In a time and place of perpetual paranoia and peril, “middle sister” decides to border her mind from her body as an act of survival, by burying her face into 19th century books, but also through silence as her shield. Not questioning, not answering, “not mentioning was my way to keep safe,” she says.

This internal, corporeal bordering mirrors geopolitical ones. Sectarian, socio-political divides and allegiances aside, there exist gendered spaces (“male and female territory”) and “dot dot dot” places (disapproved of places); “over the water” places and “over the border” places (“maybe even that country over that water”); and binaries of here and there (and the occasional both or in-between, the “neutral ground”).

Burns also foregoes character names in favour of epithets – “middle sister”; “maybe-boyfriend”; “wee sisters”; “Somebody McSomebody” – making this one of the reasons critics consider her work “challenging”. On the contrary, in a story and spatio-temporal setting where names are gendered and banned, where they have socio-political connotations and consequences, Burns’s choice should be interpreted as self-conscious and significant, not just surface-level.

In spite of its serious themes, then, Milkman is not a sombre tale. If the bones of this book are a coming-of-age story and social commentary, that literary osmosis of the personal and political, the flesh takes the form of dark humour (described as Beckettian or Kafka-esque). From the start, “middle sister” is compelling as a storyteller, and the syntactical spillage makes Milkman a feverish read. She speaks in a flurry (Burns doesn’t have a predilection for paragraph-breaks, and apparently this also makes her “challenging”), but she doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic. Nor is she fuelled by anger.

Sure, the prose is steeped deep in dialect, and sometimes the pages seem soaked, but only because of the urgency and profundity of the narrative and its narration. A stream-of-consciousness style is perhaps too simplistic and straightforward a way to describe what Burns is doing here. There are pauses, almost philosophical ones, commas and em dashes frequently puncture page-long paragraphs, and Burns is heavy on tautology. There’s a sense in which post-traumatic silence, wilful or otherwise, gradually gains a voice and a vehicle, gains tempo – and finally, there’s a rush of words, repetition. The story is being told using many words, as many words as possible, in every possible way.

If Milkman is not consistently an easy read it’s probably because it’s not meant to be one. This doesn’t necessarily make it difficult, not at least in a negative way, either. Here’s a story, unique, universal, ultimately hopeful – let’s not underestimate ourselves as its readers. Not least until we turn the first page.

Milkman, Anna Burns, Faber & Faber.