Continuing through my reading of the Best Novels of the 2010s, I have managed to get through Milkman, by Anna Burns. This is an extraordinarily intense work, shot through with wry black humour.
It is narrated by an 18 year old woman who lives in a nationalist “no go” area somewhere in Northern Ireland deep in the violent troubles of the late 1970s. She is considered “beyond the pale” by some locals — and some family members — because of her habit of reading while walking, and her disdain for the 20th century, preferring instead the world of 19th century literature. One of her brothers has been killed by the state forces and another is on the run. The narrative thrust of the piece comes from the fact that she is stalked by a much older man — the Milkman of the title — who is considered a heavyweight member of the paramilitary renouncers who control the district.
The novel is written in a style that I can only describe as being like the constant dialogues one has with one’s own thoughts. It is like a stream of consciousness though with more clarity. It does, however, mean that it is composed of long complex sentences, often in a shorthand, embedded within very long (sometimes pages long) paragraphs. Once you get used to it, it is a perfect form for this novel though it did mean it took a while to digest. It is replete with a raft of beautifully crafted minor players.
One of the shorthand forms is that there are no names in the book; characters are called what they are — “second sister”, “maybe-boyfriend”, “first-brother-in-law”, “longest friend”, “tablet girl’s sister” etc. The warring factions are also discussed by description rather than names — “renouncers-of-the-state”, “foreign soldiers”, “from over the water”, and the troubles are known as “the border issue” or the “political problem”.
The novel tells of many things. It is the story of a slow and unwanted seduction, of an unrecognised withdrawal from the rest of the community, of family dynamics in a dangerous era, of a failing relationship, More, it is a devastating portrait of a highly toxic masculinity and the ways in which women, both traditional and modern, deal with that. It is also helps explain some of the deep-seated tensions that living within a Troubled environment can bring with it. For example, residents of the neighbourhood would not call an ambulance or got to hospital if they were sick or wounded:
“Of course, she didn’t go to hospital because as with calling the police here – meaning you didn’t call them — involving yourself with medical authorities could be considered imprudent as well. One set of authorities, pronounced the community, always brought on another set of authorities, and should it be that you were shot, or poisoned, or knifed, or damaged in any way you didn’t feel like talking about, the police … would show up from their barracks right away” and try to turn you into an informer.
Perhaps most of all, Milkman shows the fatally destructive power of gossip within a closed society.
Well worth the read.