I’m much too weedy to climb an actual mountain, so Milkman became my Everest. Sometimes it was slow going and exhausting, occasionally I needed a restorative cup of tea, but every second was an amazing experience.
It starts with one of the most attention-grabbing sentences I’ve ever read: “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.”
From that point, I was gripped.
The speaker is Milkman’s eighteen-year-old narrator. Known only as “middle sister”, she lives in 1970’s Ireland during the political turmoil known as the Troubles. She’s being pursued (and threatened and stalked) by a married man in his forties.
Her would-be suitor is called “the milkman” though his job isn’t as benign as his name suggests. He’s a senior member of the paramilitary, one of the renouncers who lead her neighbourhood’s opposition to the state.
Anna Burns ramps up the tension with a first-person narrative that drops the reader directly into middle sister’s perspective.
The milkman’s unannounced appearances and his veiled threats leave the astute teenager afraid and trying to change her daily routine. She’s constrained by the community’s (and her own) view of violence and gender roles.
The milkman hasn’t committed any transgression in the eyes of the neighbourhood, where: “the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening”.
Middle sister is left dealing with other people’s reactions; some condemn her for being seen with a married man, while the ‘groupies’ trying to date renouncers want to welcome her into the fold.
Anna Burns’ writing style is creative. She doesn’t use real names, going straight into the meaning behind the words. People and places are identified by their relationship to the narrator or personal traits (“teacher”, “nuclear boy”, “maybe-boyfriend”).
The unnamed home-city’s conflict is between “our side of the road” and “over the road”. Enemy soldiers are from “over there”, giving the feeling this book could be set in any place of conflict, anytime and anywhere.
Milkman also shows how everyday events can be politicised. Names both groups give their children, the places they shop, the newspapers they read, all reaffirm on which side of the divide they stand. Liking the wrong films, or cars, or behaving in a non-approved way leaves people under suspicion and in danger.
Despite trying to keep her head down (figuratively and literally) middle sister learns she’s seen as one of the ‘beyond-the-pale’ people. This is less due to the milkman’s stalking campaign and more for her wonderful habit of reading-while-walking.
The narrator uses nineteenth century books to distance herself from her surroundings (“I did not like twentieth century books because I did not like the twentieth century”). Ironically, it’s her attempts to ignore the political problems that draw attention and push her into outsider status.
Funny and Upbeat
Though this novel is heavy going, it’s not all tragic. Some parts are darkly funny. I loved the description of longest-friend-from-primary-school’s renouncer-heavy wedding (everyone, including the bride, is described as wearing sunglasses). “The man who didn’t love anybody” is another brilliant character and middle sister’s marvellous Ma had me hooked.
Verdict: Milkman is a book that’s worth adding to your to-be-read list. Funny, clever and, yes, heavy going, it’s a creative take on serious subjects. I don’t know if I’ve ever needed to concentrate this hard when reading a work of fiction, but I’m so glad I made the effort. I’m sure there are a lot of points that I missed, so this is a book that will demand a reread.