Milkman was destined for my Books that don’t make the cut list, but I’ve had second thoughts and decided I really do love it. A year after nearly expiring from the sheer weight of reading it the first time I’m ready to go again. Eagerly ready, in fact, which is the sign of a good book. I don’t know many people who loved it straight off. It takes a bit of distance, perhaps.
To be sure (to be sure) this is one for a book club ready for a bit of a shot in the arm. It’s not a beach read. It’s one girl yabbering non-stop into your ear endlessly. She gives you it all, Northern Ireland in the 1970s through the eyes of a teenager who is trying to go about her life: work, family, boyfriend and avoid the big picture unavoidable stuff – like car bombs and the paramilitary, tribalism and her disturbing stalker, the Milkman. “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him.” No, he’s a gang-boss thug and one of the creepiest characters I’ve met in recent literature.
We’re so far inside the girl’s head there’s a lot we must take for granted. The reader is expected to do a bit of work, here. The girl has no name because we don’t think of ourselves by name. People just have labels: maybe-boyfriend, third-brother-in-law, eldest sister, Somebody McSomebody, ma. The girl gives us all these relationships in a big, interconnected web. We are thrown into the middle of the Troubles and nothing is explained: all we have is the girl’s whirring brain, trying to make sense of things that happen to her and the people in her heavily controlled community. The girl walks along the road with her head in a book and all the shit of that troubled place is visited upon her in a hundred ways, subtle and brutally in-your-face and she tells us how she feels about it all and works out how to make a life for herself. Not get drowned in the “investment of hostility”.
This is a coming of age story, with a girl trying to blend in while trying to break free. It is horrible and joyous, funny even, with an original voice that climbs into your head like an ear worm. If your book club is into light, quick reads, this is not for them. But if you want to shake things up and disturb your friends, I offer you Milkman.