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Milkman Is a Tale of The Troubles, Told Deep From Within

Anna Burns's Booker-winning novel takes on teenage girlhood, sectarian violence, and history's nameless actors.


The only word for this opening sentence is banging. “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.” It bangs loudly like a firework into the silence—no crescendo. It’s a banger the way that a club hit bangs, driven by the thud, thud, thud of consonants. Guns bang, too. Thus opens the 2018 winner of the Man Booker Prize, Milkman, by Anna Burns.

Narrated in the first person, Milkman is the mordant tale of a teenage girl in a time and place that is implicitly Northern Ireland and explicitly the late 1970s (the movie Alien has just come out). She lives in a paramilitary stronghold where people do not have names, instead referred to as “wee sisters,” “Ma,” “tablets girl,” or similar. The narrator herself is “middle sister.” She is already suspected of oddness for her habit of reading while walking, but things really go wrong for her when a “renouncer” (i.e. a paramilitary republican in the IRA model) starts speaking to her, uninvited.

He is the titular milkman. Not an actual milkman, not “our milkman,” middle sister says. “I don’t think he was anybody’s.” Somebody McSomebody already has a stalker-crush on our narrator, but the milkman is a more menacing threat. Middle sister’s mother instantly assumes that she is under his spell, enthralled by a local bad boy. This isn’t true, but no one listens to middle sister’s protestations. She has been seen beside him, and hidden cameras have photographed them together. As the community’s assumptions about middle sister harden into accepted truths, she becomes trapped inside herself, and ultimately is labeled “beyond the pale.”

This is the name given to all the strangest weirdos in middle sister’s community, but its origin is rich in historical irony. The Pale was the English territory in Ireland—deriving from the word “pale” for a pointed stick as a boundary-marker—and going beyond it meant to step outside the rule of law. The phrase’s use in Milkman chimes with the rest of its politics, which are done obliquely, out of the corner of Burns’s mouth.

Milkman is a novel about The Troubles, but from the inside. There’s plenty of loathing for those “over the water,” and boys who dig up other people’s gardens to hide their guns, but there are no names. Instead, we experience sectarian strife through the life of middle sister, who feels social politics much more intensely than the governmental kind. It manifests in the rigid gender norms of her community, and those norms’ aggressive—at times murderous—policing.

Middle sister doesn’t care that milkman is a “renouncer” per se. But she still has to reckon with the violence he brings into her life. He keeps implying that he is going to carbomb her “maybe-boyfriend.” This maybe-boyfriend recently bought a car that had the wrong flag on it. Maybe-boyfriend loves middle sister, and the flag is an excuse for milkman to get nasty with him. The problems here are not actually political: “maybe-boyfriend was to be killed under the catch-all of the political problems even if, in reality, the milkman was going to kill him out of disguised sexual jealousy over me.”

The plot is confusing, and middle sister’s language more confusing still, which serve to illustrate the circuitous truth of Burns’s book. It’s impossible to know whom to trust, in this novel, since all communication blows along the currents of gossip, suspicion, and fear.

With that banging first sentence, Burns disorients us with strange prose. At first it seems as if we might be in Irvine Welsh territory, reading a voice that is coming to us from deep inside a place and a time, cloaked in dialect. But middle sister in fact speaks with a mostly unmarked style, instead meandering along thought-journeys that loop and loop as she processes her surroundings, slowly taking us towards sensitive readings of what it means to survive under political extremes. The scenery of middle sister’s life comes shining out of these serpentine passages like a mountain range through the fog.

The lack of proper names in Milkman are a chief agent of its confusion. Middle sister lives in a very specific era, but it has been stripped of all of history’s language. IRA, England, Loyalism; none of these words appear. But that lack of names places middle sister in a specific literary context. Nameless people and places are hallmarks of dystopian novels and novels of estrangement. Unnamed people roam terrible worlds in Ayn Rand’s Anthem and in Kafka’s stories.

As Sam Sacks described in a 2015 New Yorker piece on the rise of the nameless narrator, anonymous figures in fiction relate strongly to “the strange, spectral speakers in such books as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.” Patrick Modiano also writes in this style, as has Teju Cole. These writers all use a narrator as a kind of stripped-down, pure subjectivity, a pair of eyes that wanders through the world witnessing its peculiar contents, taking its account but often not understanding it.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground feature, as Sacks observes, two of the “best unnamed characters in literature.” When these writers renounce names, they express both a distrust of language itself as a tool for understanding the world, and an awareness that namelessness “is a social as well as a metaphysical disease, one that tends to afflict women, minorities, the poor, the outcast—those treated as background extras in the primary story lines of history.”

As in Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, perhaps Milkman’s closest relation in recent fiction, Anna Burns manages to invoke all that history of estrangement and otherworldliness in the character of a young woman, as yet only on the sidelines of life. It’s a devastatingly clear point of view. From here, Burns can show us which men are predators, which women are their accomplices. She shows us how the local feminists of late-‘70s Northern Ireland related to the “traditional women” of the same time period. She shows us what went on in the girls’ toilets at the nightclub, and what happened to the women whose men were killed. Milkman is an explosive novel, very much of history but not limited by the names, dates, and places of the official record. It’s a more intimate work than that, and an outstanding contribution to the growing canon of nameless girl heroes.