Milkman Teaches about the Troubles but Doesn't Always Deliver

Milkman (2018)
By Anna Burns
Faber and Faber, 368 pages.

Back in 1996, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was all the rage. It is a fine book, though a bleak one. It's so grim that when she finished it, my wife hurled it across the room and exclaimed, "Thank God I'm not Irish!"

I'm of Scottish extraction, so I'm in no position to judge anyone else's forlorn past. I relate this anecdote because when it comes to gloominess there are decided parallels between McCourt's memoir and Anna Burns' Man Booker Prize-wining novel Milkman, which is set in Northern Ireland during the "Troubles" of the 1970s. Officially some 3,500 soldiers and civilians died during a British occupation of Northern Ireland that badly mediated conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Untold numbers simply disappeared and were likely victims of terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense League. This means that Milkman is not the sort of book likely to be delivered to everyone's reading stands.

As Burns makes clear, it was a time of tragedy, paranoia, and despair. She details a bifurcated world of "renouncers" and "informers," shorthand for Catholic nationalists who were members of or sympathetic to the IRA, and those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain rather than merge with the Republic of Ireland*. Burns introduces us to some of the code phrases from the conflict: "Over the water" is a pejorative term for England (or the United States), "over the Border" is a stand-in for the Irish Republic, and "over the road" means Protestant neighborhoods where a Catholic would not wish to venture.

Milkman is narrated–if that is the right term–by an unnamed 18-year-old Catholic woman who lives is an unnamed neighborhood in an unnamed city, though we can safely infer the locale is Belfast, as this from whence Ms Burns hails. None of the major characters have names and are mostly referenced by their roles, quirks, and status: nuclear boy, tablet girl, maybe boyfriend, beyond the pale, and so on. Early in the book our narrator recites a litany of first names that instantly label individuals as Irish, English, Catholic, or Protestant and that's all we need to know. Burns wishes to immerse us in the politics and psychology of the Troubles and presumably thought that proper names would divert attention to personalities. It also serves her purpose of showing how growing up in such an environment damaged psyches and (in a metaphorical sense) obliterated personalities; humans were pawns in a bloody game they had to play whether or not they desired to do so.

This is certainly the case of the narrator. She is fatherless, one of her brothers was murdered, her mother thinks she's headed for damnation, she is often called upon to take care of her "wee sisters," and she's routinely berated by her older sisters and (surviving) brothers-in-law. Like many 18-year-olds, her identity is a work in progress and she indentifies as neither religious nor political. Good luck with that. She has already called attention to herself for a dangerous habit: reading 19th century novels while walking! In the eyes of the community, she could be an informer passing secrets to British troops–perhaps through the book titles. After all, many of those books are English. What else would explain the fact that she's 18 and unmarried? She does have a "maybe boyfriend," but he too has called the wrong kind of attention to himself. He's a gear-head who collects auto parts, one of which the community learns is from a Bentley (British). Rumor has it that there's a Union Jack label on it. Could things get any worse? They do when a mysterious figure known as Milkman–reportedly a 41-year-old married IRA bigwig–begins to stalk her. The community begins to whisper that the two are lovers. (He's so shadowy that some confuse him with the actual milkman!)

We feel the weight of the world on our narrator, though I am at a loss to explain how this book won the Man Booker Prize. Here's another reason why many will shy away from Milkman: it is written in stream of consciousness style. This certainly helps get inside the mind of a confused 18-year-old, but it is a notoriously difficult form to master. At her best, Burns illumines how a young woman trapped in a world of suspicion, innuendo, and crippling social norms rockets from anger to resignation to misanthropy in the blink of an eye. There is, however, no disguising the fact that Milkman is also often a frustrating and tedious read. Stream of consciousness writing often impresses other novelists far more than it enthralls readers. Milkman also suffers from a jarring tonal shift in the last quarter or so–an attempt to interject humor and in the process humanize the narrator's tyrannical mother.

Should you give Milkman a try? That depends upon what your purpose for reading might be. You can learn a lot about gender expectations in the 1970s, what it means to live in a warzone, and how causes are driven by inflamed passion rather than cool reason. If you read carefully, you can infer a lot about the Troubles. If, however, you like clarity, distinct characters, and at least a ray or two of hope, you might be tempted to hurl Milkman across the room. Or across the water.

Rob Weir

*Northern Ireland is riven by religion and economics. 48% of its residents are Protestant and 45% are Catholic. Britain, however, is far more prosperous than the Irish Republic, hence pragmatic materialism motivates many Northern Irish residents to prefer the status quo over nationalist dreams or religious sectarianism.

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