I have not been as diligent with my Booker readings this year as I had hoped; not as diligent as last year, where I actually read most, but not all of the books. This year I have read only four, but I am nearly finished with a fifth. I will read the remainder, at least the one's I have already purchased. I have not, for the most part, regretted reading Booker nominees.
I was, nonetheless thrilled that Anna Burns' Milkman won the prize simply because I loved the book. Although I finished it two weeks ago, it still fills my heart. It is not a book I will soon forget. It is a book I will pick up, and read again, even a passage here and there, because Anna Burns writing has made middle-sister's voice a voice I know, a voice that I will not soon forget, a voice that has joined the other voices that form my own story, friends, family, acquaintances, another one of the voices that guide us, occasionally stepping forward, in our own narratives of our lives.
Admittedly I can't say that I recommend the book to everyone, even as I do exactly that. It is a slow meandering novel, a novel which encompasses only a few short weeks or months in linear time, but which also encompasses a life, the life of an 18 year old girl, and more, the life of a community. It is not a novel for the impatient. it is not a novel for the plot driven. But if you are willing to slow down, to read a book as if you are listening to someone's story, in this case the story of middle-sister, told from age, but looking back with kindness and understanding, on her young self, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, if you are willing, I can only hope that this novel will fill your heart as it has filled mine.
There are no names, or almost no names. The story takes place in an unknown city in Northern Ireland in an unknown time, although there are very strong hints as to the when and where. The only character who is named appears in the latter part of the novel and she is unique simply because she has managed to step outside of the overwhelming cultural imperative unscathed, or at least apparently unscathed to those still within.
Burns seems to me to capture that sense of being eighteen, of being ready to become an adult, and yet not quite. Middle sister is trying to find her own path in a culture that she really does not like, really does not want to be a part of of. She wants to simply drift by unnoticed. But she is noticed and she is noticed in a time and place where being noticed, where being singled out, where being different, is a very dangerous place to find oneself. I thought Burns' captured that sense of coming of age well. Middle sister reminded me of my own eighteen-year old self. The wisdom and the naiveté of it, that painful process of thinking oneself separate from one's own world, of thinking no one notices, of being shocked that people see you so differently than you see yourself, that sense of thinking you have survived something unscathed to only find that you have fallen directly into the trap you hoped to avoid.
Middle sister is a sharp and sensitive observer and narrator. Through middle sister's story I cam to understand something in a new way because although the story is set in a time and place that is not a part of my experience, the process of telling of her experience, the process of reading this novel, brought that experience to me in a new way, a gentle way, but its gentleness was no less pointed. This is a novel about love, about coming of age, about politics, oppression, feminism, family, individuality vs conformity, and the way our world shapes us without us even being realized that we are being shaped. It is about the way fear and love can constrain us, can make us accept cruelties we would never otherwise accept, the way fear can blind us to truth, and the way truth itself is often unknowable, shaped by the stories we hear, the stories we chose to believe, often without even knowing that we are choosing. Of course it has always been this way with human kind. For all of our so-called advances, we are no different than we have ever been.
Although this is a story set in Northern Ireland at the time of the troubles, it is also a story for all of us. It is a story about how we accept the world around us until that world constrains us to the point we do not even know we are being bent. I do not live in Northern Ireland. I live in a very different place, in a very different time. But none of us are all that different. The difference here is a matter of degree. We all listen to the stories, we all often tend to believe what we hear without checking the facts, we all, at least some of the time, trust the innuendo and the story more than the truth, and we do this often out of some sense of fear, even though we may not call it that -- fear of being misunderstood, fear of being misperceived, fear of losing standing or community.
Milkman is not, despite its subject, a sad book. As I said it is about love, and about the human spirit, a spirit that is sometimes crushed, but which often times, like the grass between the stepping stones continues to thrive despite everything. It is meandering, the way my own inner conversations are often meandering. It is a book filled with love and understanding, perhaps even wisdom, although it is not at all easy to read. I found the writing poetic, but it also draws the reader into a world filled with claustrophobia, menace, oppression, paranoia and violence. Through this book I began to feel what it might be like to live in a world where one is afraid to trust, where trust is dangerous, where the culture itself is so toxic that people are afraid to trust and believe each other, where trust is a cultural thing and one's survival depends on trusting those cultural narratives even above the words of those one loves. This is frightening, and although we do not live in this world, I do not live in this world, I see how it can evolve, how it can take root and grow. But as I said, for all of this pain, this is a novel written in a voice of kindness. The writing, in its poetry, has an element of reconciliation in it, of forgiveness in it, of looking back with understanding, and it is this, this simultaneous capturing of pain and love, that elevates this book into my own personal list of great novels.
It is this very sense of understanding and kindness that really resonated with me, that connected me to this sense of a place I did not know, but also tied it into my own life. For I live in a culture where information and stories are everywhere. I live in a culture that is becoming increasingly black and white, not just physically but intellectually and emotionally as well. I live in a culture where stories circulate wildly and we all too often believe the story without checking the facts, where what we chose to believe shapes who we are. And yet I also live in a world where most of the people I know want to be kind, want to live their lives unscathed, want merely to be loved. We are not so different, middle sister's family and the people I love. That is brilliance. These people are not objects of a time and place different than myself and my friends, they are us, only their circumstances are different and if we cannot look on them with kindness, we cannot look upon ourselves with kindness either.
This is one of those stories, like Eve Ensler's Necessary Targets was for me, that takes the other and showed me myself and those I love. Although Milkman is the far kinder and more hopeful of the two. We are all the same, only our circumstances define our differences.
If you can find a quiet time and place, if you can quell your own internal business for a bit, please read this book. I am certain it will speak to each of us in different ways. But I hope you love it as much as I do.