'Milkman' by Anna Burns
To begin with, I was relieved to find it wasn't too bad; there is punctuation and paragraphing but in a stream of consciousness kind of way, and then, after a short time, I was surprised to realise I actually liked it. The narrative voice is unusual, but the substituting of labels for naming, once you've got used to it, highlights the relationships and connections in a way that a confusing plethora of names would not have achieved.
The characters are depicted in sufficient depth for you to care about their fates and the book gives life to the 'troubles' that were, fortunately for me, in the background of my own childhood in the 1970s, but for many in Northern Ireland, were an ever-present, claustrophobic reality of life. The book gives you a sense of the suspicion, fear, rumour and gossip, the smothering of happiness by expectation, and the horrifying extent of loss. It also juxtaposes love against marriage, and the mild eccentricity of escaping by 'reading when walking' against the total madness of a society at war with itself.
Whilst there are parts of the book that meander a little too much, such as the divergence around the cat's head in the ten-minute area, and the pace is slow, following the threads as they convolute and interweave rather than relentlessly pursuing a linear narrative, is actually quite refreshing.
And what I hadn't expected is the dark, wry humour that offers relief against the grim politicising. Wee sisters are a consistent source of amusement, and the latter part of the book, with Ma rediscovering love, has a slightly lighter, more optimistic feel.