Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

“He knew my work – where it was, what I did there, the hours, the days and the twenty-past-eight bus I caught every morning when it wasn’t being hijacked to get me into town to it. Also he made the pronouncement that I never caught this bus home. This was true. Every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, I preferred to walk home reading my latest book. This would be a nineteeth-century book because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century. I suppose now, looking back, this milkman knew all of that as well.”

With the world on its current troubling political trajectory, interest in literature that takes on the themes of totalitarianism and social disharmony is on the increase. The surge in fascination with dystopian fiction – George Orwell’s 1984 topping the bestseller list following the most recent US election is certainly indicative of the trend – plays on popular concerns regarding relationships between groups and a growing global illiberalism. Having moved from the UK to the US with both places in the midst of extreme political turmoil, I am no stranger to the infectious paranoia that preoccupies all sides of the political spectrum. Suspicion and fear are rife, only deepening the chasms that have rendered compromise virtually impossible. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Chair of the 2018 Man Booker Prize judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, acknowledged the preponderance of dystopian and “urgent and topical” fiction on the 2018 longlist. In no way could this trend have been better represented than in 2018’s subsequent Man Booker winner – Milkman by Anna Burns.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is a novel with many superficially confounding factors. Written in the first person, the story is related by middle sister – an 18 year old woman, caught in the midst of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Although the country – and, indeed, virtually all identifying factors – are removed from the novel, the cultural, social, and political details that we are given locate the novel in the Troubles. Along with the removal of all explicit references to specific countries or actors, the characters of the novel are unnamed. Instead labelling characters to according to relationships or other identifying characteristics – the community poisoner is, for example, known as Tablets girl – Milkman purposefully positions itself in the abstract. The novel follows middle sister as she is approached by the Milkman, a mysterious paramilitary figure who has obvious designs on middle sister. Despite middle sister’s refusal to interact with the Milkman, he continues his pursuit. The community, unable to comprehend middle sister’s disinterest, refuses to believe that she is rebuffing the Milkman’s advances. Instead, they deem her his property and associate her with the fear that they feel toward the paramilitary at large. Middle sister becomes increasingly isolated, labelled a community “beyond-the-pale” – or social pariah – and trying to reject the Milkman whilst simultaneously receiving no support from family or friends. As middle sister increasingly gives way to the paranoia that colours every aspect of this novel, we are exposed to the raw fear and constant apprehension that characterises societies in the midst of civil conflict.

“All that running, I knew, was about me. He implied it was because of pacing, that he was slowing the run because of pacing, but I knew pacing and for me, walking during running was not that. I could not say so, however, for I could not be fitter than this man, could not be more knowledgable about my own regime than this man, because the conditioning of males and females here would never have allowed that. This was the ‘I’m male and you’re female’ territory. This was what you could say if you were a girl to a boy, or a woman to a man, or a girl to a man, and what you were not – least not officially, least not in public, least not often – permitted to say. This was certain girls not being tolerated if it was deemed they did not defer to males, did not acknowledge the superiority of males, even go so far as almost to contradict males, basically, the female wayward, a species insolent and far too sure of herself.”

Milkman is an incredibly compelling invitation to consider the impact of civil violence, as a force that makes itself most profoundly felt in the subtle chaos wreaked on social foundations. In Milkman, we find a society preoccupied by conformity to the norms instituted around conflict. In the end, it is not middle sister’s association with the Milkman that costs her her anonymity but her habit of reading and walking at the same time. Her voluntary lack of awareness is so far removed from what the community expects of its members, they brand her a social outcast. As middle sister’s friend describes:

” ‘It’s creepy, perverse, obstinately determined’, went on longest friend. ‘It’s not as if, friend’, she said, ‘this were a case of a person glancing at some newspaper as they’re walking along to get the latest headlines or something. It’s the way you do it – reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages…It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusion. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation’.”

The idea of deviance from the norm is central to the world in which middle sister exists. The “issue women” – a group of women preoccupied with human rights and contemporary issues – are labelled “beyond-the-pale” for their willingness to step out of traditional silences and the ‘keep your head down’ mentality. Any individual who moves away from social convention and displays inadequate respect for the diktats of the community is automatically condemned. It is this, as much as Milkman’s pursuit, that destroys middle sister’s ability to act and feeds into the paranoia that begins to wreak havoc upon her mental health. Milkman‘s willingness to reflect upon the subtle chaos created by ongoing social violence is the novel’s strongest element. Without invoking the specificities of time and place – although we are told that the novel’s events occur during the 1970s – the novel is able to locate the most striking consequences of daily violence. Milkman is replete with uncertainties – questions of when violence will next strike, the ongoing threat of repercussions, and the fear of suspicion – framed around the concrete boundaries instilled by a community’s attempt to navigate the situation. There is a very real sense that the community’s efforts to establish its own uncompromising rules and its refusal to deviate from an almost encyclopaedic understanding of events is an automatic and unconscious attempt to control the otherwise uncontrollable.

The subtleties of society’s rules are certainly some of the most problematic aspects of the world that Burns depicts. Middle sister’s inability to do anything about the Milkman’s advances is largely a result of the confusion that his cripplingly invasive but hands-off approach inspires. She notes that:

“At the time, age eighteen, 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 from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.”

This passage – as well as Milkman‘s overall exploration of gender dynamics – is perhaps one of the novel’s most expertly rendered themes. It is also particularly timely, given the trend of political discourse over the past couple of years. Milkman‘s 2018 Man Booker win was, in many spaces, hailed as a result of the novel’s parallels with the #metoo movement. While this certainly speaks to the timelessness that Burns has achieved through the abstraction of specific details in her work, it reduces the book to a political diatribe – which is something Burns has never claimed for Milkman. While the exploration of gender dynamics and the subtle violence that plays a significant role in middle sister’s decision paralysis feels incredibly relatable, the novel never strays far from the sense that these social diktats are firmly rooted in the social and political paranoia of the time. Milkman’s advances and middle sister’s inability to act against them are the product of a community trapped by the violence in which it participates. While this does not undermine the very real mirror that middle sister’s experiences hold up to the present day, much of Milkman‘s power remains in the context of the daily violence in which paranoia and fear have become society’s unconscious default.

It is interesting, however, that a novel so replete with the consequences of violence should simultaneously offer the lightness afforded by middle sister’s voice. Her narration is captivating and the humour that she brings to the chaos around her is disarmingly incisive. Burns’ ability to create such a fully realised and engaging narrative voice, whilst simultaneously mitigating the intimidation that typically comes with stream-of-consciousness style, is a rare skill. Middle sister’s constant awareness of the realities underlying her own actions, as well as the strange turns of her community, makes Milkman a refreshingly real insight into political and social violence. That the novel stays unencumbered by explicit political motivation only adds further strength to the boundaries that it explores. Where middle sister’s experience remains the novel’s heart, the periphery is composed almost entirely of the symbolic power implicit in division:

” ‘Us’ and ‘them’ was second nature: convenient, familiar, insider, and these words were off-the-cuff, without the strain of having to remember and grapple with massaged phrases or diplomatically correct niceties. By unspoken agreement – which outsiders couldn’t grasp unless it should come to their own private expediencies – it was unanimously understood that when everybody here used the tribal identifiers of ‘us’ or ‘them’, of ‘their religion’ or ‘our religion’, not all of us and not all of them was, it goes without saying, to be taken as read.”

Whether Milkman presents too demanding a challenge for readers has been a preoccupation of reviewers since the novel swept into public consciousness with its Man Booker nomination. It seems to me, however, that the question should be less one of challenge and more one of reward. While there are stylistic components to the novel that might prove intimidating at first sight – the lack of identifying details, the stream-of-consciousness narration – any subsequent challenge is superfluous to the effortless engagement that Burns achieves with middle sister’s narrative voice. The plot and its characters are executed with a perfection that I have yet to experience elsewhere and the result it a novel both compellingly insightful and unexpectedly relatable. To describe this novel as a joy to read would perhaps be a stretch – there are too many dead animals for me to make this claim. Milkman is, however, undoubtedly one of the most commanding fictionalisations of civil conflict and the warped coming-of-age narrative that this context can create. It is an astounding piece of fiction, compelling recognition even beyond the astounding celebration that the novel has already received.


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