Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman by [Burns, Anna]
Anna Burns' Booker-winning novel Milkman is set in Belfast during the Troubles - although the narrator names neither the city nor the warring factions within it, nor herself, nor any of the characters she meets, instead using her own euphemisms. The narrator, also unnamed, is an 18-year-old girl who is relentlessly harassed by the mysterious Milkman, a feared IRA paramilitary twice her age. The Milkman knows about the narrator's boyfriend ('maybe-boyfriend') and his job, he knows about her French evening class, he knows where she goes running and where she goes drinking and where she lives, and whenever she leaves the house, the threat of him turning up in one of his many vehicles is ever-present. While the narrator does nothing more than reluctantly talk to him, rumours soon fly through the tight-knit Catholic community in which she lives that his harassment of her amounts to an actual relationship, and the pervasive, unwanted presence of the Milkman comes to completely unravel her strict routines of self-preservation.

Milkman is a clever, powerful portrayal of life in a city gripped by a sectarian civil war, all filtered through the narrator's own unique voice. She isn't especially politically engaged, let alone an active fighter for the republican cause, and yet her position as part of the 'renouncer' community, as she calls her side of the political divide, dictates almost everything it's acceptable for her to say or do, from the names she might one day pick for her children to the brands of groceries she buys. There's even some debate about whether it's acceptable for people in her district to go to hospital, hospitals being run by the state and certain injuries likely to attract attention from the authorities. When maybe-boyfriend, a mechanic, gets hold of a supercharger from a Bentley, a rumour spreads that Bentley car parts may have a union flag on them, which immediately puts him under suspicion for potentially taking a symbol of British rule into his house - an utterly unacceptable offence in the community's eyes that puts him at risk of a punishment beating.

Again, Britain is never named by the narrator - it's 'over the water' to her - and neither is the nature of the flag, but we soon understand that in a community that's policed by paramilitaries who mete out their own form of justice via kangaroo courts (even the actual offences are determined by the IRA, leading to one character being charged by them with something they decide is a quarter of a rape), being the subject of gossip is not an annoyance, but a life-threatening danger. Longest-friend, the narrator's best friend from primary school, berates the narrator for her escapist habit of reading-while-walking: her habit of reading and making notes in Victorian novels as she walks home has attracted the community's attention and marked her out as strange, different, potentially one of the 'beyond-the-pales' who, while not being politically dangerous, simply don't fit in. The more we learn about the narrator's world, the more she starts to casually mention the deaths of her own siblings and friends in the 'political problems', and the constant threat of violence running through this book starts to escalate until it borders on the surreal.

By using her own words, her own language, to talk about this, peppering her meandering, stream of conscious narrative with unusual words and sentence structures from the Victorian novels she so loves, the narrator is carrying out a small act of subversion, as hers is a world in which language and opinion are so rigidly sectarian that there is very little room for nuance or flexibility of view. There is a strange but significant scene where members of the narrator's French class argue that the text they are reading from is nonsense because it suggests the sky isn't always blue. When their teacher takes them to the window and points out the colours in the sunset - none of which are blue - the students become almost aggressive in their denial, unable to cope with their narrow view being challenged. Choosing her own words, even to recount the speech of others, is the narrator's way of speaking about her experiences on her own terms, and a small of defiance as she tries to retain a sense of self.

My only complaint about Milkman is that while it's often brilliant it is also, frankly, hard work - and yet I don't think it needed to be. Each time I picked it up, it took time to adjust to the narrator's voice and the stream of consciousness style, but this was exacerbated by the way the words spill from the narrator page after page, largely without paragraph breaks. More challenging are the lengthy, rambling digressions. Frequently, the narrator will break off into a long aside, sometimes dozens of pages long, about the origins or the consequences of what has just happened. I understand the point of these sections, and the style has deliberate (I assume) echoes of Laurence Sterne, but I do think they're sometimes simply too long, and don't contribute anything like as much as they should. Far from immersing me further into the narrator's world, they lifted me out of it. I don't think authors need to spoon-feed their readers, but it's possible to experiment with form without making reading feel like a slog (last year's winner, Lincoln In The Bardo, is a great example) and I do think Milkman could have been 75 pages shorter. 

Overall, though, Milkman is a highly original, sometimes shocking and deeply thought-provoking read - and, I should add, its darkness is often surprisingly funny. It won't be to everyone's taste, and I certainly wouldn't blame you if it isn't because there were times when I struggled with it, but when it's good, it's very very good, and it's a book I'll remember for a long time.