Category Archives: Reviews

Milkman by Anna Burns Review by Julie Maclean


What I admire in Burns’ Milkman is everything, including the superb reading by Brid Brennan who owns the text in its myriad eddies and shifts. In this Man Booker Prize winner of 2018 psychic cruelty, physical brutality and family ‘doings’ are observed in a wry, intelligent and nimble voice.

It’s Northern Ireland in the Seventies, although this is never stated outright, and the narrator, middle sister, is accused of having an affair with the milkman, a paramilitary heavyweight who is stalking her.

‘But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.’

We are carried in a breathless monologue as she navigates her way through sex, innuendo, the vagaries of a bookish family and coupling, hence her maybe boyfriend, at a time when menace lurks around every corner.

The quest of middle sister for agency and security in a community under pressure at its gossipy, sex-crazed worst renders her face expressionless. But even this ‘nullity’ becomes treacherous because she needs to show something, but what? Characters have no names but are Somebody McSomebodies, wee sisters, third brother-in-law. This device works magically by taking us nowhere and everywhere.

The wee sisters are a show of their own. They are cartoon characters in their nerdishness demanding readings of the classics; the comic relief in a Shakespearean tragedy. But some scenes are desperately sad. The father on his death-bed remembering his serial rapist is one. The mound of dogs and the cat stories are others. The ciel bleu episode with the French teacher is uplifting and breathes hope into a society that has lost its imagination. Burns is a skilled raconteur in full, lyrical Irishness.

The mention of icons like Kate Bush and Freddie Mercury root the narrative in time and are the kind of pop stars who divide fans and signal social divisions in a place where religion can be assumed by your name alone. While the narrative might appear to loop and meander it cleverly builds with subtle segues as the milkman creeps further and further into the foreground and the maybe boyfriend further and further away.

Burns is laugh-out-loud funny at times. She adopts a stream of consciousness seasoned with the absurd in the traditions of Joyce in parts of Ulysees, and Beckett but with precise punctuation and qualities of her own in her special language play. Her ‘Fuck-off-ly’ and five ways to describe one idea adds to the humour. The mystique around the milkman is another clever device. Such an everyday, trusted carrier of succour to the people is instead a spy, a stalker, a predator and nobody has ever seen him with a bottle of milk in his hand.

‘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.’

A proper milkman who turns up later in the book is the hero, but bringing grief to the family in an unexpected and hilarious episode.

Burns reminds us of the oppressor ‘over the water’, ‘over the road’ of the fight over a flag. Whispers become accepted truths, batons and prejudices are pulled from under the bed to become weapons of torture to beat ‘the other’. ‘Others’ are girls who read while walking, gays, sexually active unmarried females, unmarried females, boys who cook, anyone who dwells beyond the pales. And I thought there was only one.

Her writing, in the way of Mantel, Atwood and O’Connor, is sardonic and breathtaking but her voice is thoroughly her own. She adopts a way of extreme-explaining and use of hyperbole to expose folly and hypocrisy through faux seriousness.

‘He made lewd remarks about me….–my quainte, my tail, my contry, my box, my jar, my contrariness, my monosyllable…’

She mashes the vernacular, the Latinate, the syntax of the 19th century, (‘I did not like the 20th century’), coined words and the profane in fearless lexical ribbons, all compelling.

Burns is in love with language and she makes us fall in love with language and shows us that the beauty and idiosyncrasies of language need to be fought for when everything else can be lost.

Her achievement is made more poignant learning that she was crippled with back pain in drafting the end of this thrilling ride, eating out of a food bank and claiming benefits once the manuscript was completed and published.

Just when we think we’ve seen and heard everything there is to read and hear about the Sorrows, just when Brexit threatens to secure a hard border once again, when another journalist is murdered, a wife beaten to death, dissenter incarcerated; then the milkman comes knocking. Look, he’s on the doorstep.



The Bit in Between by Claire Varley


I can see why Macmillan plucked this novel from the slush pile.

In a time of terror what joy to find a debut novel that deals with some tragic backstories but manages to be both irreverent and philosophical at the same time. Varley has used her Greek/Cypriot background and time as traveller and community worker in China, Cyprus and the Solomon Islands to create pacy fiction in the form of a Bildungsroman or a coming-of-age story as far as Oliver, the male protagonist is concerned.

The action, mainly based in Honiara, is where Oliver chooses to set his second novel in the company of new love interest, Alison, an adventurous girl he meets at the airport. Varley pokes fun at the literary world here since Oliver has had a book published and has won a literary prize but it soon becomes clear that his writing is dire and he has no original ideas.

Expats in Honiara come under scrutiny too in their desperation to build wealth, reputations or to find themselves in the spiritual sense while the Solomon Islands struggles to build a nation. Varley has an eye for the serious and the ridiculous in this post-colonial carnival. This is entertaining and sensitive writing.

Written in the third person, the action springs from the curious and lively Alison. In spite of her insecurities and her twenty-something questioning of life and its meaning she observes folly and flaws in the parade of opportunists and do-gooders seasoning places like the Pacific Islands. These characters could have fallen into the  stereotypical-drunks, egomaniacs and bleeding hearts but are saved by authentic dialogue and surprising revelations that bring balance to individuals like NGO Rick, the dope-head American who lives in a Vogue house with a servant and who is given some of the funniest lines.

Caricatures like this really exist and Varley knows how to extract comedy and pathos from her experiences. She cleverly juxtaposes a funny episode in a bar or club with the more serious story of Sera and her pregnancy. We are taken into indigenous family life and the struggle of the local women in particular, their morals and mores cleverly set against Oliver’s struggle with his over-protective Cypriot mother back in Melbourne and her hilarious emails which made me think of Sue Townsend and ‘The Diary of Adrian Mole’.



I enjoyed this book’s meta nuances and literary devices, not only where Oliver writes a story within a story, but where vignettes of individuals are embedded in italics. This technique highlights their significance but also Varley’s dexterity as a writer. These backstories are lyrical, poignant but not sentimental.

Varley might have become didactic in narrative dealing with social injustice in a Developing country but instead, we learn a lot about life on this Pacific island through skilful weaving of well-drawn situations involving believable characters. A surfeit of adjectives was distracting now and again in phrases like ‘beautiful brown eyes’ and where a description of a sunset and sky seems overwritten but this is a minuscule irk in what I found an engaging and intelligent read.

I found the story compelling on many levels, many personally resonant, and whilst it will probably not be considered literary fiction because of its humour and accessibility, it has a literary bent bordering on the style of Simsion and Hornby.

‘The Bit in Between’ could have wide appeal because of its global reach, political themes and humour, but specific appeal to young adult and baby boomer travellers. I read it in two sittings and look forward to the sequel because the ending opens it right up and I want to see where Oliver and Alison go from here. A confident and assured debut.