Middle Sister

Patty Osborne

The Man Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman (Graywolf) by Anna Burns is great to read, but for a truly immersive experience, get hold of the audiobook so that the Irish actor Brid Brennan can read it to you. You’ll wish it could go on forever. The story is narrated by middle sister, an eighteen-year-old living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Middle sister’s world is populated by maybe-boyfriend, wee sisters, first- second- and third-brothers-in-law, longest friend from primary school, informers and/or renouncers, as well as Somebody McSomebody, a name that refers to random judgmental people who criticize middle sister for, among other things, walking-while-reading. Then there is milkman, a forty-year-old with a white van who is probably a member of the paramilitary, and who decides that middle sister should be his girlfriend. When he begins to insinuate himself into middle sister’s life, she writes “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.” A familiar occurrence in the lives of many girls and women in the 197s, when we were too polite to make a scene—but I have never before encountered such a nuanced account of how that feels. Middle sister lives in a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else’s business and people live according to a web of elaborate but unspoken customs and expectations that are supposed to, but don’t succeed in, preventing middle sister from becoming a “beyond-the-pale young person.” Burns’s writing is dense and rhythmic and moves along at a steady pace as middle-sister’s busy teenage mind paints a picture of the daily calculations she must make in order to avoid running into milkman, being caught breaking curfews, being poisoned, being observed reading the papers from “over there,” or any other of the myriad perils in her life. Middle sister has a large and colourful vocabulary and she speaks with enough sarcasm, outrage and fed-upness to make you laugh out loud, but when you hear Brid Brennan reading in her mellow voice and strong Irish accent, you’ll be laughing from inside a luxurious bath of words, words, words.

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