Milkman by Anna Burns
Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.
Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.
Where masked paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.
Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.
We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.
She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.
Dangerous to read and walk
Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books. She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.
I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.
This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property. He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.
Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?
The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.
A City in Turmoil
Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step. Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.” Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.
It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’
But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.
Powerful voice of narrator
The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman
Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of a creepy stalker. She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”
It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:
I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”
Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure. It’s certainly unconventional. It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.
Milkman: Key Facts
- Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
- The Chair of the Booker judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous; beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
- Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019
Anna Burns: Key Facts
- Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones.
- She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
- She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.
Why I read Milkman
Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.
It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com