Milkman by Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and is the first book by a Northern Irish author to have ever done so.
The novel follows the experience of a teenage girl in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, as she is singled out and preyed upon by an older man. She is forced to endure these attentions, even though they frighten her, due to the man’s high status position among the local paramilitary, or “renouncers”. Even though she tries to avoid him, the community views her as the “loose woman” seducing a married man, and she is spurned because of it. I wouldn’t say that this novel is specifically about the Troubles, as the main protagonist is uninterested in the conflict or the politics and takes the tribalism and violence as an unquestionable part of her ordinary life.
Reading this novel was a somewhat claustrophobic experience. The escalating tension and danger makes it a bit of a thriller. The pervasive network of gossips in the small-town setting have the stifling effect of being constantly watched – similar to Big Brother in 1984 or the Eyes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Additionally, the main protagonist seems to have very little agency, things happen to her rather than because of her, and even when she does act in a way to improve her situation this is twisted and reframed by the local gossips so that she ends up appearing to act in alignment with their assumptions anyway.
There is also an increasing sense of absurdity or surrealism in the norms, logic and judgements of the people in this community that can be read as Burn’s darkly mocking these times. For example, the painstaking taking apart of phones to “check for bugs” every time anyone makes a call – despite no one actually knowing what a bug looks like or where it would be. Further, the Renouncers are portrayed as being dangerous, but also to some degree as being inept and bumbling; and many of the community’s precautions and actions against the country-over-the-water are depicted as being comically petty. Altogether, these absurdities add a note of humour to the novel while increasing the sense of suffocation, as though it is a very bad and inescapable dream where you’re the only sane person.
An interesting feature of this novel is that there are next to no proper nouns: no place names or personal names. Characters are indicated by their relationship to whoever is talking to or about them. Our protagonist is known as Middle Sister, Middle Daughter, Maybe-Girlfriend or Longest Friend, depending on who is referring to her. Her harasser is known as Milkman, which is assumed to be a nickname (since he’s not actually a milkman) until it is revealed after his death that it was his real last name. The lack of personal names increases the sense of the network or web, that is the local community where people are only delineated based on their relationships with other people in this community. Indicating that outside of these relationships, the individual characters have no identity at all.
The slow building of tension in this book is masterful and the bleak, blunt prose is uniquely elegant. It provides clear insight into the panic and powerlessness of a woman pursued by unwanted attentions in a world of double standards as well as a stomach-turning image of the everyday violence and trauma of Trouble era Ireland. Truly a stunning novel.
The change at the end of the novel, after the death of Milkman, feels like a breath of fresh air that highlights through juxtaposition how trapped you had felt reading the preceding chapters. I found that this quotation summarised well this sentiment as experienced by Middle Sister:
“I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much 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.“