Milkman, by Anna Burns, is both a fascinating and challenging read: It reaches the mind and the heart but also the marrow. The book is a deep immersion in the sensibilities of the characters living through “the Troubles,” those decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, during which at least 3500 people died, more than half of them civilians. Yet Burns mentions neither the place nor the time of the unfolding events—the reader has to stumble along until page 60 to be told “this was the Nineteen-Seventies.” Burns also refuses to bestow upon her characters the least we expect from a storyteller: names. The 18-year-old narrator, her “maybe-boyfriend,” her “wee sisters,” her “third sister” all remain anonymous, a strategy reflecting one contrivance for survival in a police state. Further disrupting novelistic conventions is the book’s opening, which, in one sweep, gives away the plot’s resolution, thus dispensing with the usual technique for building suspense: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man.” This blunt assertion challenges the reader: do you wish to continue even if you already know the outcome of at least one main event? And no, there will be no names, so get used to “McSomebody.” The lure of this voice—smart, honest, unapologetic, tinged with dark humor—carries the reader through the 348 pages of packed prose that follow.
The narrator defines her life as “living otherwise.” Under constant surveillance, the community’s life is controlled by well-marked boundary lines (“this side” vs. “that side” of the road, “over the water,” “over the border”) but also by such absurd, mundane distinctions as “the right butter” vs. “the wrong butter,” “the tea of allegiance” vs. “the tea of betrayal.” The power of the military forces is in full display through references to killings and bombings in the streets. In one unforgettable scene, the narrator focuses on the soldiers’ savage killing of the neighborhood dogs—their throats are cut to silence them, their bodies dumped in a mass grave. The opposition, the state renouncers, are also the object of the narrator’s censure. They are capable of “laying down their law…There were beatings…disappearances…multi-bruised people walking about with missing digits who most certainly had those digits only the day before.” Later in the book, she casually mentions how, her “second and fourth brothers” had also been renouncers, a fact unknown to her “until the funeral of one of them.”
The consequences of physical violence are evident in missing digits and dead brothers; the effects of insidious psychological warfare are harder to assess and describe. And here, Burns, a native of Belfast, proves to be a superb chronicler of the phenomenon of cognitive self-regulation: “Just as people here chose not to say what they meant in order to protect themselves, they could also, at certain moments when they knew their mind was being read, learn to present their topmost mental level to those who were reading it whilst in the undergrowth of their consciousness, inform themselves privately of what their true thinking was about.” And it is the narrator who faces the ultimate test of being monitored, not only psychologically, but also physically and sexually, when she becomes the object of fascination for one of the renouncers, a high-ranking member of the paramilitary group, an older man simply known as “Milkman.” The innocuous title is at first simply baffling, even to the narrator: “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him….For all this though, I only noticed him and his cars when he started putting himself in them in front of me.” The deadpan humor only disguises the narrator’s unease as she becomes increasingly aware of Milkman’s relentless, predatory pursuit of her.
The kinship between sexual and political violence is at the heart of Burns’s novel, which casts Milkman as an overdetermined symbol for abuses directed towards women, often left to their own devices for survival, with no support from friends or family, as in the case of the young narrator. Despite her constant attempts to reject Milkman’s advances, which become gradually more threatening, the community decides to brand her as the man’s lover. Even the narrator’s mother is convinced her daughter is having an affair with the married renouncer. Milkman’s game is not to touch the young woman—at least not yet—but to encroach upon her in unexpected ways to prove his intimate knowledge of her every move. Despite the lack of physical contact, his hovering presence is enough to infiltrate her body and engender a kind of fear evoking what she calls “negative orgasms.” Choosing mostly silence as her strategy of resistance, the narrator finds herself retreating into states of oblivion—“jamais-vu”—and “numbance,” a loss of both her inner world and “full-bodiedness.”
Yet, amidst the brutality of the narrator’s living circumstances are small moments of relief, “points of light.” In her French class, the teacher demands that the students look at the sky to notice that it wasn’t only blue. The discovery that the sky was “a mix of pink and lemon with a glow of mauve behind it” is an overwhelming experience; it is one of those “shiny,” bright moments the narrator tries to avoid, knowing their ephemeral nature. And she is right: stepping out of the language school, she notices Milkman’s van parked close by.
The narrator’s main tool to remain “sane in [her] mind” is reading. Since she “does not like the twentieth century,” she takes refuge in nineteenth-century novels—Hardy, Gogol among others—but her particular manner of reading—“reading-while-walking”—raises the community’s suspicion, placing her in the dreaded state of living “beyond the pale.” The reading-while-walking, fusing her time and space with those of the characters in the novel, reveals a fragile attempt to anchor her body in a zone of her own choosing. Others in the community also try to surmount their circumstances, sometimes in surreal fashion: Maybe-boyfriend’s parents simply abandon their home and four sons, leaving a note (sent to the wrong address!) explaining that they’ve gone off to become international ballroom dancers. Maybe-boyfriend hoards car and engine parts in the abandoned house while his companion, “Chef,” carries on imaginary conversations with his “invisible apprentice” about French cooking and recipes.
The narrator’s investment in language and humor proves to be her salvation. The sheets of words seem to offer her protection against the assault on her being, her body. She can remain intact as long as she can use words in her manner of choosing, sometimes absurd, sometimes surreal, often darkly humorous and disturbing. Describing the harrowing scene of her father’s death, for example, she recalls his last words: “I was raped many times as a boy….Did I ever tell you that?….Many, many times… that Crombie.” But depicting her reaction, the narrator focuses only on the task of having to explain to her younger sisters what “rape” and “Crombie” meant; she then ends her account by saying “I was left his scarf and his flat working-cap, also a lifelong distaste for the word ‘crombie’ which also I’d thought was ‘crumbie’ until I found it in the dictionary that evening on getting home.”
Perhaps the most inventive device the narrator uses is a variation, almost a reversal, of the free indirect style. A story teller using free indirect style peppers her narrative with idioms used by the character being described. Burns’s narrator, however, injects her own preferred words in her descriptions of the characters. In their incongruity, these words belong more to the realm of writing than to casual conversation or commentary. In such instances, the narrator reveals her maturity as the writer-to-be, experimenting with the rendition of a scene in a novel. For example, the community, gauging the narrator’s relationship with Milkman, wonders if she leans towards “highly principled, rectitudinous coupledom relationships”; or her mother, reminding her daughter of the short lives led by paramilitary husbands exclaims, “Where are most of those women’s brooding, single-minded, potently implacable husbands?”
The delight of language games extends to the most disturbing character in the story. While the narrator professes ignorance as to the origin of Milkman’s name, she slyly introduces a few clues in her reference to the neighborhood’s common practice of using milk containers to hide bombs: “milk-crates of ragged petrol bombs…stacked up for the next district riot.” But then we realize there is not only “Milkman” but also a milkman, a real one, who delivers milk, and who, despite his nickname as “the man who doesn’t love anybody,” turns out to be a benevolent figure in the narrator’s life. The double naming is provocative in its implications, among them the confusing, absurd dualities which divide people, neighborhoods, and countries.
Milkman, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker prize, is Anna Burns’s third novel. At a time when Brexit is stirring fears of reigniting the Troubles, this is the perfect time to read Burns’s searing portrayal of people enmeshed in the crippling, deadly violence of sectarian warfare.