Milkman by Anna Burns: a pertinent portrait of life during the Troubles

An exploration of Anna Burns' The Milkman and its chilling relationship to the violence of the Troubles.

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a sign saying 'no surrender' hung over rubble on Shankill Road
Shankill Road, Belfast, during the Troubles, circa 1970. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Anna Burns’ Milkman (Faber & Faber), crowned the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize on October 16th, made the Belfast-born author the first Northern Irish writer to win the prize. Praised by the judges for its “distinctive voice” and for being both “particularly and brilliantly universal”, the novel prevailed over the bookies’ favourites, Richard Powers’ eco-epic The Overstory (William Heinemann) and 27-year-old Daisy Johnson’s debut novel Everything Under (Jonathan Cape) to claim the £50,000 prize.The prestige attached to such an award, representing the pinnacle of literary success for many, certainly added to the novel’s allure when I saw it sitting on a shelf in Blackwell’s, proudly bearing this impressive title on its front-cover. But it was the rest of the front-cover that really piqued my curiosity. It combines a garish photograph of a sunset, which, for me, never fails to evoke a sense of the stereotypically sentimental, with a peculiarly impenetrable title written in a peculiarly plain font that seems to actively resist such sentimentality. It was this incongruity, which underscores the narrative’s own opacity, that convinced me to give the book a go.

Such opacity stems from Burns’ refusal to give just about anything a name in her novel. That the story is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles is only apparent if one is familiar with either the country’s past or Burns’ background, with the conflict being ‘an enormous, immense occurrence’ in her life that ‘demands to be written about’, she told The Guardian. If not, the novel reads not so much as a reminiscence of a past world, but as a chilling, dystopian vision of the future. The story follows an eighteen-year-old girl, known simply as ‘middle sister’, who attracts the attention of a man called Milkman, a 41-year-old paramilitary predator who we soon learn “didn’t take milk orders”, “didn’t ever deliver milk” and “didn’t drive a milk lorry”. Allegedly having an affair with her stalker, the novel revolves around the potential damage that rumour can cause as our protagonist loses autonomy over her own story and, due in part to her habit of reading while walking, gets earmarked as a ‘beyond-the-pale’.

Her resignation in the face of such a loss of control, however, and indeed the wider sense of detachment that Burns’ matter-of-fact writing style evokes in even the most disturbing of moments, is what makes the novel so hard-hitting. In this society, violence is the norm. The prospect of Milkman planting a bomb under a vehicle of middle sister’s maybe-boyfriend, a car mechanic, leaves him completely unfazed. According to ‘longest friend’, it is preferable to be seen in public with Semtex, an explosive, over Jane Eyre, with the latter “unusual” and the former “to be expected”. But violence that is not motivated by politics is unthinkable; the murder of tablets girl, a mentally-unstable woman who poisons anyone, from strangers in nightclubs to her own sister, unsettles the neighbourhood more than the murder of innocent children and teenagers at the hands of the paramilitary. Compared to her two novels prior to Milkman, Burns tells The Guardian that this one is the most political: “As a writer, I think it is absolutely fascinating to explore that whole theme of borders and barriers and the dreaded other”, she says – and given the contentious questions that Brexit has raised regarding the Irish border, this discussion gives the novel, despite being written largely in 2014, a particular pertinence.

In a similar vein, the Booker’s chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, draws a link between the novel and the #MeToo movement, noting that it offers a “deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #MeToo is about”. Whilst the story does not feature any physical sexual assault, middle sister feels that she will not be – and indeed is not – taken seriously if she opens up about the emotional abuse she is experiencing as a consequence of being stalked. This stance is hardly surprising, given that she herself struggles to believe that her stalker is doing anything wrong, supposing that abuse can only be legitimate if it is physical. Burns masterfully delineates a culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment that bleakly persists throughout the course of the novel, with no hope in sight for its being broken by the narrative’s close.

Despite the novel’s accidental relevance, the difficulty of Burns’ writing style seems to have proved a barrier to the enjoyment of some readers. Written in streams of consciousness, the narrative tends towards tangents, with the present moment capable of spawning many flashbacks and side-notes in a way that is highly Atwoodian, making it sometimes difficult to remember the scene you left behind originally. Milkman’s strange temporal looping also sees the opening sentence supply us with the ending: “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.” The novel is certainly more concerned with character than plot, ultimately utilising its well-wrought insights into the psychology of an eighteen-year-old girl to shine a light on the complex conditions of the society it depicts. Yet the plot by no means feels superfluous to this aim; on the contrary, its loose parameters give the space necessary for character development whilst still maintaining a satisfying framework through which to capture the interest and attention of a reader.

That the story is not especially plot-driven is perhaps what makes the plot twist with regards to the protagonist’s maybe-boyfriend near the end feel a little on the artificial side. Whilst the revelation is not at all implausible, it does read as an ad-hoc resolution intended to force their relationship out of the ‘maybe’ category in a way that felt too easy and neat. However, this hardly detracts from the cleverness of the novel as a whole. Its perceptive understanding of how an individual mind can be moulded by the social context it finds itself in; its inimitable, unforgiving and brutally blunt narrative voice; and its often-startling use of humour alongside all of its depressing depictions of suffering, collectively make Milkman a wonderfully unique, haunting read.

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