I can’t recall reading quite so magnetic a novel as Anna Burns’s Milkman in some time. In many ways, it resembles Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: its first-person, controlled stream of consciousness lends the novel an air of immediacy and authenticity, and quickly builds its own syntax and grammar as a means of cuing the reader more clearly to its concerns and its protagonists’ character. In others, however, it’s quite different: Milkman is earthier and funnier; where McBride’s narrator, even in her novel’s most brutal moments, had so finely-wrought a voice that it could read other-worldly, Milkman is never anything less than fully embedded in its working-class Belfast mise en scene.
Milkman takes place some time during the 1970s depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and in the heart of a Catholic community entirely separated from the Protestant one it neighbours. The manners of elision that this situation encourages bring to mind China Miéville’s The City & the City – so unlikely do the circumlocutions of Burns’s characters seem that they occasionally present as fantastical. So, too, do the commonplaces of their day-to-day: the way bushes are taken to click, or individuals to disappear; the distance of any authority outside of the community, and the weirdness of their intermittent materialisations, which happen quickly and just as rapidly retreat. “All this … seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see” (p. 89).
This is one of the most refreshing aspects of Milkman‘s considerable achievement: the way it recreates a world now oddly separated from our own, despite its proximity in terms of simple time. It also feels, in these days of Brexit and border wrangling, important to recall the distressing effects of division and demarcation in the province of Northern Ireland. The impossible pressures that the requirements of clan loyalty and gang solidarity place upon the people of Burns’s Belfast bend and twist them, taking them away from their own desires and goals and towards agendas and disputes not truly their own. They also demand of Burns’s characters destructive moral choices – or rather choices with no viable moral option available: “Do you stand strong? Do you bear witness, even if, in the process, you cause more suffering and prolonged humiliation for your son or your brother or your husband or your father? Or do you go away, back inside, abandoning your son ore your brother or your husband to these people?” (p. 95)
What is most impressive about Milkman, though, is that it correctly situates the political within the personal, as well as vice versa. The novel isn’t the story of hitmen and hardmen engaged in an underground war, but of women and communities living a life above and within that context. No character in Milkman is named – it is safer in this similarly unnamed Belfast to avoid looking too closely at, or choosing to label too decisively, anything or anyone – but its narrator is the middle sister of a family which has already lost two of its sons to the Troubles, and who now finds herself the target of the titular individual. No deliverer of milk, this man – rather, rumour has it, he is a leading figure in the paramilitaries (again, this word is never used) … and he has taken a jealous dislike to the lad whom middle sister insists on continuing to call her maybe-boyfriend. In a conflict that passes from one generation to the next, Milkman is also the inheritor of his soubriquet – an older, “real” milkman (that is, a real “milkman”), was once known to middle sister’s mother. The detail of all these overlaid relationships spools out, often orthogonally, throughout the novel.
As they do, we come to understand how the politics of the community doesn’t just drive its events but also becomes a sort of mask for them: “maybe-boyfriend was to be killed,” middle sister worries, “under the catch-all of the political problems even if, in reality, the milkman was going to kill him out of disguised sexual jealousy over me” (p. 115). In this context – in which women beaten by their husbands are told it is because of some depredation meted out to their man by a soldier from over the water, or in which every murder is understood as having a purpose or justification regardless of its depravity – middle sister comes to feel that “my inner world, it had seemed, had gone away” (p. 178). Likewise, she comes to see Milkman’s stalking of her as of a piece with the unspoken rules of her community: proceeding piecemeal and in metaphor, almost imperceptible but no less, and perhaps more, claustrophobic for all that. The intensity of all this is exhausting for all concerned; each character gives up much in order to survive within a space continually boasting less and less room for manoeuvre.
Perhaps this is why middle sister’s habit of walking the streets reading a book troubles so many of the people around her. In a community governed entirely by rumour – Burns is aware, no doubt, of the anthropological function of gossip in societies which seek self-policing unity – what comes to seem most dangerous is information, education. No one is encouraged to achieve this – boys are spirited away to the fight at an early age, or forced into make-do marriages or closeted homosexual isolation, whilst girls are encouraged to compete for the affections of gangsters and assassins – but middle sister is routinely caught with her nose in a novel.
It’s the way you do it – reading book, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea besides you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pill together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here? (p. 200)
This tension between the individual and the group, self-improvement and conformity, is not resolved by the novel’s end – cannot, in a society dominated by a recourse to, an insistence on, a herd identity, be resolved. But nor can the community be saved by a resort to the inward. Instead, increasingly recursive self-justifications are sought in order to protect the integrity of the corporation. Women, again, are the forefront of this, demanding more rights and greater equality, and so the men try to pay lip service to these demands “by coming up with the invention of rape with sub-sections – meaning that in our district there could now be full rape, three-quarter rape, half-rape or one-quarter rape” (p. 311). Such are the rationalisations to which middle sister and her contemporaries are subject. Only in her third brother-in-law, for whom rape is not “equivocations, rhetorical stunts, sly debater tricks or a quarter amount of something” (p. 346), is there a sign of hope – and only in the re-emergence of her mother’s true self from under a smothering blanket of theatrical piety is there a suggestion of escape.
Despite the fact that Milkman dwells on constriction, it is an expansive novel full of wisdom and not a little optimism. It perceives a dark time in recent history and seeks not just to understand but explicate it, and to hint and suggest how the way out of it was found. It does so through that incredible voice – humane and witty, difficult and characterful yet almost instantly accessible. There is little about this novel that doesn’t work beautifully – perhaps only in the weakness and occasional redundancy of its plot and central mysteries does it struggle to make something of its promises – and in its unnamed universality is, alas, of renewed relevance in our increasingly tribal times. Burns has here written something rather special, and the book not just deserves its place on this year’s Booker shortlist; it seems to me a frontrunner for the prize.