Fear, Scaremongering and Control

Anna Burns, Milkman

Faber, 368pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780571338757

reviewed by Genevieve Sartor

A common reference in reviews of Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman is head judge Kwame Anthony Appiah’s comments in praise of the novel: that it will help people to think about #Metoo, that its portrayal of the Troubles is comparable to the fractured societies in contemporary Lebanon and Syria, and that although it is a difficult read – akin to ‘climbing to the summit of Snowdon’ – it is ‘worth it when you reach the top.’ While Appiah’s associations (which Burns has remarked were unintentional) are not unwarranted, to dwell on them risks deviating from what this book squarely presents: an intense psychological journey into the traumatic impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland on its inhabitants.

Milkman takes place in the late 1970s, and its main character is an introspective 18-year old who has unwittingly garnered the attention of a much older man, a high-ranking republican paramilitary called Milkman. His moniker alludes to the once-practiced delivery of petrol bombs in milk crates by members of the IRA and his title, like that of the book, indicates the domineering omniscience of his role in the text, as well as a referential practice of naming. This custom is similarly applied to all other characters in the novel. Burns replaces proper pronouns with various terms of association: ‘wee sisters,’ ‘second brother-in-law,’ ‘Somebody McSomebody,’ and so on. Although this stylistic feature has been unfavourably described by critics as ‘difficult to follow,’ Burns’ choice to not directly name her characters clearly comes with narrative purpose: being directly identified is one of the central anxieties in this novel, which is highly appropriate given its context. (The issue of names is not new to Northern Irish fiction, Anne Devlin’s aptly titled short story ‘Naming the Names’ being but one example.)

The novel’s central protagonist, often called ‘middle sister,’ is in an unofficial relationship with the relevantly titled ‘maybe boyfriend.’ A nuanced account of her relationship with him is accompanied by a discursive survey of her habits, which include ‘reading-while-walking’ and long runs in the nearby Parks and Reservoirs close to her area. These habits serve ‘to ground and protect’ her, and a tendency towards imaginative reverie and syncopated thinking maintains her preference for ‘minding her own business.’ This protagonist counts off landmarks on walks home that are descriptively familiar to those who have frequented the streets of Belfast. These include the ‘ten-minute area,’ a no-go flashpoint that is reminiscent of the roundabout at Carlisle Circus that merges with the Antrim road in the city. In a sensitively complex scene, it is in this once burnt out area that Milkman’s main character finds a severed cat’s head and protectively wraps it in kerchiefs in a swift, impulsive wish to bury it. The gesture recalls Antigone’s burial of her brother Creon in Antigone – an allusion shadowed by the desire to bury the head in ‘a place of privacy, of quietness . . . where the ancient plots were,’ to enact a tentative form of reparation.

Yet this moment, like many others in the novel, is interrupted by Milkman’s sudden presence. He has identified her whereabouts, leading to the progressively nightmarish and inexorable escalation of the protagonist’s ‘troubles’ as the novel progresses. Milkman is able to name her habits, her ‘maybe-boyfriend,’ where she works, and members of her family. It is in his ability to place her whereabouts and also subtly suggest the murder of ‘maybe boyfriend’ that Milkman affects an indeterminant and therefore exhaustive psychological toll on the book’s young central character. This progression corresponds with the protracted, fugue-like difficultly of certain narrative segments in the text. The novel’s main character adopts a despondency that begins to personify ‘the ten-minute area,’ a dead-zone that is likewise reflected in dissociative paragraphs in the novel that are seemingly without end, location, safety or straightforward imaginative purpose. The character’s metamorphosis further aligns the figure of Milkman and the Troubles: he indicates an emotional cauterisation that stalls both original possibility and individual freedom.

Milkman’s penetrative omnipresence appears in the protagonist’s consciousness like ‘the underside of an orgasm, how one might imagine some creepy, back-of-body, partially convulsive shadow of an orgasm – an anti-orgasm’ that grows up the back of her legs, her buttocks and her lower spine ‘a lameness of stance setting in.’ The visceral language Burns uses to describe these subterranean antagonisms experienced by the main character resembles those used in an earlier scene, where on her father’s death bed he describes being repeatedly raped by a man – in a Crombie – when he was young: ‘always terrible, those sensations, those trembles, those shudders . . . kept being awful, my whole life through.’ This phrasing, which intermittently connects throughout the novel to depictions of ‘middle sister’s’ bodily response to the presence of Milkman, associates both daughter and father with a subtly shared horror. Although Milkman does invite us to think about gender inequality in a state of civil war, the book, like its subject matter, is inclusive in its casualties.

In a confidential meeting between the main character and her ‘longest friend,’ links between Milkman, the Troubles, and the nuanced main character of this book are made clear. ‘Longest friend’ tells the protagonist that it is not Milkman, as she – and a number of critics of Milkman – have thought, that brought on her ‘troubles.’ Rather, she is told ‘you brought it on yourself.’ She asks: ‘Why would he [Milkman] be the point? He is the point before the point.’ The point is that Milkman’s central character, through her reading-while-walking, syncopated counting, despondencies and peculiarities, albeit innocently, has garnered notice from a strained and insular part of the world patrolled by sectarian conventions.

Milkman does not simply symbolise predatory masculinity. The ‘troubles’ he embodies indicate the dominant capital-T ‘Troubles’ that stultify and ferret out any option for individual variance – the real violence here is an inescapable sectarian one that can reduce human possibility into a ‘ten-minute area.’ Such violence, and the pressured assimilation of those that have experienced it, deeply colour the harsh and isolating realities this novel depicts. Milkman’s narrative polyphony provides access into a world that is deeply unsettling because its story is not not true. Fear, scaremongering and control associated with the phantom figure of Milkman represents what has been painfully experienced in the polarised statelet of Northern Ireland.

A critical spotlight has once again been cast upon Northern Ireland due to the ongoing Brexit negotiations and the Democratic Unionist Party’s support of a Conservative minority at Westminster. Burns’ novel is set approximately 20 years before the Good Friday Agreement, the treaty upon which Northern Ireland’s system of devolved government is theoretically based and that stipulates the North’s desire to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The DUP’s representation of Northern Ireland’s voice in Brexit negotiations elides the fact that the majority of the North voted to remain in the European Union. This apparent conflict of interest may explain why the Northern Ireland Assembly has now been without a functioning government for nearly two years, breaking the record set by Belgium in 2010: Northern Ireland is the only place in the world that, during a time of peace, has been without a governing body for this length of time. Against such a backdrop, it would be naive and complacent to suppose that the divisive and paranoid society portrayed by Burns through the eyes of her young protagonist has been consigned to history.

Milkman reads like a feat of mental mediumship, remarkably unselfconscious and expansive in its fluent, coveted exposure. The book does not finish at the top of a summit (read Michael Hughes’ Country, published this year, to find such a climax). Instead, closure in the book is found in the foil of ‘the real milkman,’ a sensitive and human character that is the love interest of the protagonist’s mother. His role suggests straightforward, denotative language can exist: Milkman can be milkman – just like Troubles can be troubles. There is a plethora of great fiction from Northern Ireland, but Burns’ Booker triumph has brought her novel to the attention of an international audience that can and should treat it as a gateway to a national topic. The supposed ‘difficulty’ of her novel is in fact its greatest strength: it provides a vivid depiction of what is difficult to understand, and an escape route from the ‘ten-minute area’ it describes.