Well, I was definitely set for this month. I received three copies of Milkman as gifts for my Birthday and Christmas. This is definitely the book of the year, the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018 has been praised to the heavens, so it seems like a great choice for the first book club of 2019.
Milkman – Anna Burns
It is a long time since I have read a book that challenged my stamina this much. Four times, FOUR I seriously considered putting it down and never ever picking it up again, and I’m still not sure why I didn’t do just that. Anna Burns writes without the use of paragraphs, which makes the reading more difficult than it need be. The book is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles (the late 1970s) and is a stream of consciousness narrative, which reads as the repetitive ramblings of an 18-year-old girl who cannot gather her thoughts well enough to just tell her story. The narrator goes off on a tangent regularly and then comes back full circle many pages later, leaving you wondering ‘what was the point of all that then?’ I gave up trying to find the point halfway through the book when it became clear that most of the narrative was utterly irrelevant.
The characters are given no names, they are instead given short descriptions such as: ‘middle sister’, ‘maybe boyfriend’ and ‘third brother in law’, this in itself was not a problem, but coupled with the repetition, long rambling prose and the lack of paragraphs and punctuation made for an overcomplicated read. I don’t know why I continue to buy books that won literary prizes, as more often than not I am left wondering what criteria the books were judged on. With Milkman, it’s possible that it won the Man Booker Prize because of the unusual style of writing, which I did not enjoy at all, or it could be that it fits with the ‘me too’ movement that is very relevant this year.
Whatever the reason, I would never have given this book an award, it is ‘The Emporer’s new clothes’ in a book, and I for one am happy to stand up and shout ‘THERE’S NOTHING THERE!’ It’s one of those books you know it’s going to take weeks to finish if you can even be bothered to finish it at all. I gave the book 2* but I’m not sure it deserves that to be honest. The group rated it from 2* to 3.5*, read it if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Human Acts – Han Kang
I like Han Kang, her stories are a little dark and her writing deep and philosophical, having read ‘The vegetarian’ and loved it, so I was looking forward to reading this. This book is not an easy read, in May 1980, a student uprising in Gwangju, in a far south region of South Korea, was brutally repressed by the military government. A young man, Dong-ho is part of the demonstration. He is there along with a friend. When the soldiers start shooting, people start running in every direction. He is separated from his friend but he can see a bullet going through his ribs, Dong- ho then finds a place to shelter before setting out to find his friend. Human Acts does not break the reader in gently, starting with the horror of many unidentified dead bodies and the people desperately searching through them to find their missing family and friends.
The novel manages to convey the utter horror of one of the most infamous incidents in South Korean history. The Gwangju Uprising was bloody and brutal, there are 800+ bodies buried now in the memorial cemetery in Gwangju, and until I read this book I knew absolutely nothing about any of this. Gwangju is Han Kang’s hometown and she tells the story of that uprising from the deeply personal perspective of victims and survivors and, most poignantly, the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was shot by soldiers during the chaos. The book is well written and incredibly hard-hitting and I would definitely recommend this heartbreaking story. I gave the book 4*, as did the rest of the group, it is definitely worth a try.