“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.”
What on earth can you do with an opening like that apart from read it, ravenously?
Thus begins ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns, the tale of an 18-year-old narrator (“middle sister”) who falls foul of the judgement of her community during the Irish Troubles by inadvertently attracting the attention of an ominous paramilitary named ‘Milkman’.
Middle sister is not remotely interested in the politics of The Troubles and instead is more concerned with her maybe-relationship with “maybe-boyfriend”, whom she sneaks off to see in another district to avoid her gossiping neighbours.
Unfortunately, when Milkman begins to approach her on the streets, the watching community – in tragic chorus fashion – constructs their own version of events which rapidly overtakes the truth.
‘Milkman’ is certainly the most Irish of all Irish novels I’ve read thus far – not just because of its subject matter but because of its intensely likeable (and unmistakably Irish) style.
Middle sister is whimsical, charming and very funny, and it’s an act of genius on Anna Burns’s part to create a character who seems to be all of these things entirely by accident.
Her style of narration is eccentric but endearing. Her dialogue may not be terribly realistic, but the way she captures people’s relationships is. From establishing middle sister’s maybe-relationship with maybe-boyfriend through to her hypothesis that everyone in her area is deliberately picking the ‘wrong spouse’ to avoid the heartache of seeing the ‘right spouse’ blown up in the troubles, Burns is bang on the money.
‘Milkman’ is also a unique, often comically hyperbolic look at how people deal with tragedy. Many of the community become the district’s ‘beyond-the-pales’; undesirables who refuse to adapt to the established state of things.
Among these are ‘tablets girl’, ‘nuclear boy’ and ‘real milkman’ – an actual milkman, not to be confused with the eponymous paramilitary. Each of these meandering oddballs comes to play an important part in the story, as we learn more about their own tragic backstories.
What’s in a name?
Nobody in this novel is named. Instead, we grow accustomed to a series of pseudonyms such as “third brother in law”, “oldest friend”, “wee sisters” etc.
In Burns’ world, it’s better to know as little as possible and get involved as little as possible, which could explain the shielded identities of all the novel’s key players. But it also gives the sense of being representative – that this kind of story could play out in many a community, and there is something inevitable about the way the factions of this community rally round or set their rifle sights on each other.
An assured style
Anna Burns’s style is likely to divide her readership. It is not what I would describe as an ‘easy read’, and in fact, seems to sit somewhere between traditional narrative and stream-of-consciousness.
I happened to love it. As with many books which have an individual style, it’s a bit tricky to get used to at the beginning, but by a few pages in you feel firmly ensconced inside middle-sister’s head with total access to her free-wheeling thoughts.
A huge part of the success of this novel also involves what is not happening. Much in the same way that the community imagines an affair developing between Milkman and middle sister even though it isn’t, she herself refuses to engage with Milkman or ask for help from others because she has decided to pretend his harassment isn’t happening, even though it is.
The two of them are bound so tightly by what the community has deemed to be true, that it seems hard to imagine a way for middle-sister to escape Milkman’s clutches.
Overall Milkman was a hugely satisfying read, with a unique, likeable style and a well-crafted story which somehow manages to walk the line between comedy and tragedy with perfect balance. Highly recommended.
Who else is reading the Booker shortlist? First thoughts?