The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov (Harvill Secker: 2011 - first published in Ukraine in 2009) A series of interweaving stories based in modern Ukraine, involving a resurrected cat, an anti-wimp drug, an underground cult, unexplained sleepwalking, an embalmed husband, and lots of milk (though not necessarily in that order).
That sounds a lark, eh? All those bizarre plot ingredients. Ripe for a bit of Andrey Kurkov fun, I’ll bet.
That’s exactly what I assumed. I’m a Kurkov fan. I enjoyed Death of a Penguin. It was short and almost perfect. So this seemed worth looking forward to.
I probably should have left it there. But I had to go and spoil it. I had to wade into another Kurkov which, from the outset, warned me it was going to be different. It was longer than any other Kurkov I've picked up, which was a red flag to start with.
It's not entirely different, I guess. There are still many of the hallmarks I loved the first time around. The Milkman in the Night has a similar sense of humour as Kurkov’s previous writing. His feel for the absurd is still there, and he continues to make you feel something approaching warmth for his simply presented, innocently motivated characters. They’re almost two dimensional at times, but it gives them a strange sort of appeal. Not quite pity, but something in the same family.
So he played around with the same ingredients, and he did so through a handful of cleverly interlinked stories.
But no! I have to stop myself there. I’m in danger of persuading myself this wasn’t that bad after all. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. There were sections where I got bored, which is pretty much the one sin I find tough to forgive in a book.
With the possible exception of Irina, I struggled to care what happened to each of the characters. Trying to sustain the sort of farcical story lines Kurkov is so expert at weaving through a long novel like this is an incredibly tough ask, and not one I think The Milkman in the Night answers very successfully.
I just didn’t enjoy this. I can sit down and I can tell you all the reasons why this should be good. I could tell you the bits I did enjoy. I could laud his humour and the serious points that lie underneath it. I could probably sell this book to you if I put enough heart into it. But none of it escapes the fact that at no point was I tempted to stay on the train for an extra stop to read a bit more.
It provides a complete counterpoint to JK Rowling’s latest mega-book in a lot of ways. With The Milkman in the Night, I should enjoy it but didn't. With Rowling, I’d struggle to tell you exactly why I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy. I shouldn’t have. But I did. Rowling’s story telling prowess compelled me, and I looked forward to picking it up every chance I got.
That didn’t happen with this. I was amused. At a couple of points, I was touched. But for a 474 page book, there needs to be a whole lot more than that. It needs to make you care. Compel you to read on. It needs to grab you in a way that sustains you through each turn of the page.
I was not grabbed. I was barely pawed.
Good bits, but not enough of them.
Next week, a complete surprise (mainly because I have no idea what it’ll be yet. I have six books all staring at me waiting to be read - I may have to flip several coins).