One thing Anna Burns, author of the prizewinning 2018 novel Milkman, does astonishingly well in the book is to portray the scary, unsettling realities of being young.
So many novels glamorize youth. One can find so many confident youngsters in books. They know how to make tough decisions, they know how to make and keep friends, and they know how to relax while alone. And they never, ever have an awkward conversation—unless of course it’s perfectly staged and thus not awkward at all.
One might argue that all of these well-adjusted kids should serve as good role models for all the less-adjusted kids of the real world. But this will only be true if those real-world kids don’t see through the farce. And this will only be true if the less-adjusted kids are not actually all that different from the well-adjusted ones. For the kid who’s mainly adjusted, but needs a few tweaks, sure. Such lucky kids might be able to see a better version of themselves in the heroic kids in books. But for the kid with big issues—and what kid has no big issues?!—even the most realistic novels can seem like farfetched fantasies.
I am probably biased in this matter, having grown up as one of those less-adjusted kids myself. Not to mention one of those less-adjusted adults. So for me, it is a relief to read a novel that keeps it real in the areas of social awareness, personal awareness, and level of mutual affinity to one’s world when one hasn’t been in it for all that long.
The protagonist of Milkman is an adult, but only barely so. I could very much identify with her social-emotional state at that age, as described in this passage:
“At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near.”
(Yes, she is referring to the man who appeared and drove up in one of his cars, as mentioned in my last blog post.)
Before closing today, I would like to mention that the author keeps it real in other ways, as well—most notably as regards politics. While the terms “Ireland” and “Catholic” are not used even once in the book, Burns is brilliant about making her setting clear. The protagonist, against her will, for she’d rather hide within her nineteenth-century novels, is embroiled in all the politics of her place and time. Burns does not sugarcoat the hard truths of this place and time. Additionally, she tells her story with great respect for humanity, in all its strangeness and variety.
How well adjusted were you as a kid? How well adjusted were you as an adult?