The Big Read, Brighton

Working with the Booker Prize Foundation to bring literary fiction to university students

Cover of Anna Burn's novel titled Milkman, Pink sky over Irish seascape

2019 Anna Burns

Cover of Anna Burn's novel titled Milkman, Pink sky over Irish seascapeThe Big Read 2019 is Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber):

As the novel opens, middle sister is being harassed by a 41-year-old paramilitary officer nicknamed the Milkman. He appears suddenly, like a phantom, stepping out of a wall to walk with her or driving up alongside her to offer a ride, casually indicating that he knows everything about her brothers, her “maybe-boyfriend” and her night studies. “I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me,” middle sister says. “I would be startled by every encounter, except the last, I was to have with this man.”

Middle sister attempts to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.


Anna Burns in conversation at the University of Brighton“Milkman” is a deft and triumphant work of considerable intelligence and importance. It is a deeply feminist work, a compelling and significant look at how the regular life of a young woman is intimately used for personal and political gain. And it is told originally. The voice isn’t so much eccentric and odd as strong and unique and honest — yes, the narration is like none you’ve read. That alone is its triumph. LA Times

Burns’ sentences are short and arresting. The novel is deceptively easy to read, initially. You feel instantly immersed in a world and absorbed by it. Sometimes it’s cosy, sometimes sharp and shocking. What makes it an important and necessary book for 2018 is the way it raises the treatment of girls and women. The narrator’s vulnerability is apparent, yet she’s isolated and abandoned. Her tender, fractious relationship with her younger sisters makes it clear that she is still just a teenage girl, and one who is choosing to isolate herself in order to delay the frightening onset of adulthood. Yet she doesn’t really have anyone to support her or speak for her. She has become prey, through no fault of her own.

Head judge Kwame Anthony Appiah said he wanted people to read this novel as part of a contemporary conversation about womanhood. He commented: “I hope this novel will help people think about #MeToo. We think it will last, and by that I mean it’s not just about something that’s happening now. The novel is to be commended giving us a deep and subtle and challenging – intellectually challenging and morally challenging – picture of something that’s part of what the #MeToo discussion is about.”

Anna Burns signing copies of Milkman at the University of BrightonOne particular passage haunted me: “Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society 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 by something that wasn’t there?”

This is a novel about the silent violence that is visited upon girls and women. The contrast between the narrator’s response to the looming, chilling threat, and the way she is treated because of the Milkman’s attentions, reminded me of the reporting around the Rotherham scandal. Too many people still believe that adolescent girls are culpable in their assaults. Milkman gives teenagers back their interior, and there’s a touching, fragile dignity in the narrator’s voice that the coldest heart couldn’t fail to respond to.

The Independent

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Research Communications • November 17, 2019

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