Anna Burns’ Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is not an easy read. There are few chapter breaks. Within the chapters, there are entire sections with no paragraph breaks. And within the paragraphs, there are sentences that can span many lines with little or no punctuation. With the exception of a dog and Somebody McSomebody, no characters have names. Burns identifies them instead by descriptions: “maybe-boyfriend”, “real milkman”, and, of course, the Milkman.
Groups and places likewise go by descriptions; Britain is “the country over the water”, and the setting is not named either, although it is clearly the author’s home of Belfast during the ’70s. The unwieldy internal monologue of the narrator—”middle sister”, an 18-year-old voracious reader and frequently hilarious observer of her own community—is at first a bit jarring, as she frequently dives into back-story that’s often much longer and more detailed than the action it modifies. But from the first alarming sentence, Burns offers a riveting, breathless rhythm that she maintains throughout the book.
When the narrator breaks off from the sparse plot to offer deep background, the reader must painstakingly work her way through what might seem like a tangent, but is in fact key to understanding the action as it unfolds. The constant hum of tension felt by the reader during these asides, which take up more of the book than the actual plot, mirrors that felt by the narrator in her home community. While Burns’ indeterminate, stream-of-consciousness style in the tradition of Faulkner and Joyce has clearly turned some reviewers off and puzzled others, this coming-of-age tale is original, timely, and ultimately rewarding.
Milkman is about a lot of things, but it is fundamentally a psychological novel. Burns explained in an interview that she “grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could.” And so, at its most superficial level, Milkman is about the Troubles. The narrator comes of age in a peculiar “psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed”, where “matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’, ‘over the border.'” The divisions and rules are minute, pervasive, and well known to all: there’s “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal.” Every act, then, became a “political statement”—”everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.” There’s a constant threat of violence, by the state and by the renouncers of the state, via car bombs, kangaroo courts, assassinations, and riots, so much so that there were no “ordinary deaths” in the city, “not anymore.”
But despite the constant “click” of unseen state cameras documenting every move in the community, state violence is not the villain in this novel, nor does it comprise much of the plot.
Milkman is not really for those interested in the history of Northern Ireland, and indeed, if you are, you won’t get much in the way of historical detail herein. This is also not a political novel, although Burns has discussed it in this context: “If by political you mean is writing concerned with organizational structures and power and how that power is achieved and exercised and how it impacts on and influences people and the relationships between people, then yes, I guess it is political. I feel that what I write about is absolutely and essentially interested in how power is used, both in a personal and in a societal sense.” In this sense, then, the politics of Milkman are not simply the colonial and religious politics traditionally associated with the Troubles; they are also the politics of community, which both mirror and intensify those of the larger struggle.
To name the characters could be to implicate them with either the state forces or the local renouncers, each of whom police the area for idiosyncratically perceived transgressions. The narrator notes the violence of the occupying state against members of her community, yet her community also recognizes the violence enacted in its name by the renouncers themselves, which makes them “uneasy, no longer certain of the moral correctness of the means by which the custodians of our honour were fighting for the cause”, although of course they cannot openly acknowledge this realization. She wants to be anywhere else, or invisible, or silent, as she deliberately refuses to engage with current politics, exercising “vigilance not to be vigilant”.
The community notes her strange habit of running, of reading while walking ( Ivanhoe, or Madame Bovary—always the classics, because she “did not like the twentieth century”), and of taking French classes downtown, in a neutral area. Better, she thinks, to stay quiet, to “keep the lid on, buy old books, read old books, seriously consider those scrolls and clay tablets.” It was a kind of shield, her “one bit of power in this disempowering world.” But despite these attempts at escapism, she is unable to fully transcend, immersed as she is in the collective, ongoing, ever-present trauma of the Troubles: “And we didn’t speak on this, didn’t dwell on it, but of course, along with others we imbibed the day-by-day, the drip-by-drip, on-the-street effects of it.”
The narrator’s deliberate aloofness renders her silent, and the local politics of gender govern her speech. The Milkman is a renouncer, a 41-year-old married and mysterious senior paramilitary who is not even a milkman, and his obsession with the narrator becomes a metaphor for the dysfunctional rules of gender, “that official ‘male’ and ‘female’ territory, and what females could say and what they could never say.” This is a community rife with open secrets and gossip that functions as fact; indeed, in this closed society, this “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district”, rumors drive the narrative tension just as surely as any of the characters or their actions. These failures of communication oppress the narrator as she struggles to avoid the Milkman, the titular paramilitary who is dangerous primarily because of patriarchal privileges rather than sectarian politics.
And so Milkman is about sexual violence—or more specifically, it’s about the kind of sexual violence that the narrator’s community fails to recognize as violence. Burns explains: “Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were—if no physically violent touch is laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being leveled 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?” Indeed, the Milkman never touches the narrator and only looks at her directly once, in their final meeting, yet he and his associates follow her for over 300 pages; he materializes sporadically, suddenly, and briefly as she goes about her days, revealing that he knows her every move and threatening her mechanic maybe-boyfriend indirectly through stories of car bombs and unanticipated mishaps.
It’s not clear why he chooses her to terrorize, just that he has, and she is worn down by the sinister uncertainty of his unwelcome appearances. The building tension throughout the novel is not, as one might expect, the prelude to rape; the sexual violence in Milkman is the demoralization of stalking, the dehumanization of silencing, and the objectification of victim-blaming. There is no one—not her mother, not her oldest friend, not maybe-boyfriend—to whom the narrator can turn or who would even believe her. The local group of feminists—the “issues women”—were deemed by the community to be “beyond-the-pales”, “aborting homosexual insurrectionists” who courted danger from the renouncers themselves with their transgression of gender roles, and so they are no help. The trauma intensifies from stalking, to ostracization, and finally to resignation: “I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man. Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.” She will become what he wants, and what the community has already decided that she is.
For a book so full of coded language, innuendoes, gossip, and rumors, Milkman is perhaps really about silence. The narrator has trained herself not to speak about the Troubles, and the community has conditioned her not to speak about the Milkman’s singular terrorism, instead writing her narrative for her, so much so that when she does speak, she’s not believed—which further conditions her to keep her mouth shut, and indeed pushes her into the soundlessly “shapeshifting” van of the Milkman.
This timely novel is about what happens when we multiply the traumas of sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault by simultaneously conditioning victims to remain silent, punishing them when they don’t, and speaking for them by filling in imagined and cruel details about who they are, what they do, and why—all of which enhances men’s abuses of power and facilitates the harrowing historical cycle that teaches that is perhaps best, safer, even more dignified not to speak at all. Yet in the end, as her “beribboned, besilked, bevelveted, behighheeled, bescratchy-petticoated” wee sisters dance around the neighborhood, as young boys play their imagined war games in the role of the Renouncer Hero Milkman at dusk, the narrator returns to herself. Despite the presumed setting with its very specific history , Milkman is a timeless and universal story, one that ends with a bit of light shining in—literally, as the narrator almost laughs when she sets off on a mind-clearing run, inhaling the setting sun.