The reason this book has a sunset on the cover - a cover that postponed my considering reading it until I was challenged to pick a winner from this year’s Booker short list* (intolerant as I am of pictorial schmaltz) - becomes apparent in the third chapter, when the narrator’s French language evening class collectively denies that the sky can be any colour other than blue (or, at night, black), despite the evidence presented to them through the window by their teacher. It is the second time in a week that the narrator has been astonished at a coloured sky: her maybe-boyfriend had taken her to ‘watch the sunset’, an unheard-of and somewhat suspect activity for someone raised in a community in which every behaviour and opinion has been determined by convention, and in which, consequently, all behaviours and opinions immediately classify a person within the strict codes of those conventions. Although no particulars are given names, the book is apparently set in Belfast in the late 1970s, in the hopeless depths of the Troubles. The eighteen-year-old narrator has learned, as have all in her community except for those ‘beyond the pale’, to present only her “topmost mental level to those who were reading it,” to hide herself within the conventions of a divided society in which norms are structured, reinforced and policed by gossip, in which “not mentioning was my way to keep safe.” In her community, in which the ‘renouncers of the state’ [IRA] are both the instigators and the manifestation of the shared political and religious position, life, and to an even greater extent, death, only makes sense in terms of the conflict. From all families, active participants in the violence, innocent victims of the state’s responses and suicides (sufferers of what the narrator’s mother calls ‘the psychologicals' are everywhere) all end up in ‘the usual place’ - the cemetery. Shame is a mechanism by which partisan orthodoxy is maintained. “Given that shame was such a complex, involved, very advanced feeling, most people here did all kinds of permutations in order not to have it: killing people, doing verbal damage to people and, not least, also not infrequently, doing those things to oneself.” The narrator is not as successful at hiding herself beneath convention as she would like, her habit of reading ‘great novels’ when walking, for instance, draws the attention of, and comment from, various quarters, most significantly from the character referred to as the milkman, seemingly a renouncer specialist in “shadowing and trailing and profiling” who has been responsible for numerous killings and has high standing in the community. “I didn’t know whose milkman he was. 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.” He does, however, have a white van (though he is opposite in every way from the 'real milkman'). No amount of not responding by the narrator can prevent him from ‘taking an interest’ in her, oppressing her and grooming her as a future mistress. “I’m going to curtail you and isolate you so that soon you’ll do nothing,” he says, persuading her to stop visiting her maybe-boyfriend by intimating that he, as a mechanic, would be vulnerable to a car-bomb. The ‘relationship’ between the narrator and her stalker proceeds faster in the gossip of the community than in reality, gossip that pre-forms and iterates the story and gives it a sort of inevitability. The milkman could be read as a manifestation of the community’s inherent sexism and gendered power imbalance (the personally political and the collectively political can never be entirely disentangled), but also as a manifestation of the narrator’s own psyche, deformed by the society in which she lives: the milkman seems to know everything about her, “picking up on my secret desires and dreams”. The fact that the end-point of a memory is known before the memory is recounted intimates the inevitability of any account in the past tense. Everything that happens in this novel is revealed in its first sentence, and both the awful tension of the book and its considerable enjoyability and humour (it is by no means a difficult book to read) arise from the fact that, although the novel is tightly plotted, the narrative works always against the plot, resisting it, incapable of averting the inevitable crises but attempting at least to postpone them, to ‘buy time’, by inserting more and more thoughts, speculations, and recollections into moments of urgency. The more urgent the moment - the closer the milkman - the more extensive or the more complex or the more pedantic the loops of narrative the narrator inserts, as if narrative could slow or postpone the plot’s inevitable slide towards crisis. It is the control of the speed of experience that is the narrator’s (and the author’s) primary mode of contention with ‘the facts’. Burns, in her wonderfully looping riffs of ever-increasing pedantry, uses precision to cumulatively humorous effect (if precision in itself is not a humorous effect). The pursuit of logic to the point of illogic mocks a community operating on spurious rationality, and the mix of high and low registers underscores the narrator’s ambiguous conformity with that community, a community in which the ‘logic’ of resistance to oppression creates a ‘logic’ of oppression, in which personal ends are only achieved through political means, subjecting the personal to the political rather than making the political a means by which the personal may find expression. As the novel ends, though, it is intimated that it is power’s derogation of women (and its other victims) that shows power’s vulnerability, and that provides opportunities to assert the personal in its political mode.
*I should have put money on my choice.
Milkman took out the Man Booker prize in 2018 and has raised eyebrows, created debate about literary fiction (- is it too hard to read?) and divided readers into the 'likes' and the 'nots'. A typical Man Booker winner then? Yet, no: Anna Burns’s novel is refreshingly uncompromising, inventive and compelling. I was drawn in within a few pages - the style of writing is beguiling and the voice of the narrator, Middle Sister, is ever present in the reader’s mind, even when you rest between chapters if you dare to. Our eighteen-year-old has no conception of how her actions, or, more correctly, her inaction, impact the community, family and friends. Preferring to walk and read, an action that sees her attracting harsh criticism from friend and foe alike, to be distracted by the nineteenth century and perhaps even eighteenth-century classics, Middle Sister would like to distance herself from her social environment and, in particular, the politics of that place. There are no named characters and no place names yet we know that this is a place of threat and violence, that she lives in a close-knit community riven by religion, history and paranoia. Petty jealousies, posturing and gossip reinforce these divisions and add fuel to the flames. When the Milkman takes an interest in her - much to her confusion and, at first, annoyance and then, later, fear - she is drawn against her will into a web of threat and violence that she would rather ignore. Though, of course, we can easily see that there is a no way to ignore this politically violent and corrupt world, no matter if you go to French classes, avoid political discussion, or keep your head in the literature of the past. Burns brings us First brother-in-law (and third), Somebody McSomebody, the Wee Sisters, and - my favourite - Maybe-Boyfriend, with effortless conviction. The narrative and descriptions of place mark this as Ireland during the height of the Troubles - more specifically, Belfast of the 1970s. From the beginning, despite some forewarning, there is tension - a tension that has sharp teeth. Threat invades from all sides. Especially frightening are the scenes with the Milkman. Despite this, the novel brims with humour, quirky anecdotes and snappy observations of relationships, both familial and romantic. The politics are expressed in all their seriousness (violence and its real consequences), as well as their ridiculousness (bravado, rules and one-up-manship that borders on the idiotic). The conversations between the characters are laced with irony, hostility and double-speak - Middle Sister is often startled by the actions that take place around her and by the behaviour of others towards her, as though she is at an epicentre of a maelstrom, unable to act, only wishing to remain unnoticed. She is unable to react in any coherent manner, unable to protect herself or others close to her. Anna Burns’ Milkman is unforgettable. With its incredibly powerful narrative style, it will make you laugh out loud, shiver with fear, and strike you with its profundity.
In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes "interesting," the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister's attempts to avoid him--and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend--rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers.
Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.
Longlisted for the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018
"Everything about this novel rings true. . . . Original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique."--The Guardian