Jenny Farrell reviews the novel Milkman, a peripheral view on a besieged working-class community during the North of Ireland Troubles, which has won the Man Booker Prize
Belfast-born author Anna Burns has won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. The Booker’s chair of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, described it as “incredibly original”, and “None of us has ever read anything like this before.” Burns is the first North of Ireland winner of this award, previous Irish authors being Iris Murdoch, Roddy Doyle, John Banville, and Anne Enright.
Any novel about the Troubles makes a statement feeding into the way history will record those times, new generations will see them. Not only is there an Official Version, there are also the real experiences of both communities and various versions within each of these. Milkman must be seen in this context.
Milkman reads like a dystopian novel. We are in a time and place where names are not mentioned, places not named, people referred to in terms of their relationship to the anonymous narrator, or by another designation. Almost everything is expressed indirectly, by innuendo. In this way, the narrative style of the novel reflects the coded talk of Belfast, where names reveal an either/or identity, and pronunciation is a shibboleth.
The world presented is both dystopian and Belfast at the same time, specifically Catholic working-class Ardoyne, in the 1970s, because those times were as horrendous as they are described here. Anna Burns conveys this, highlighting the madness, by using a surreal narrative style. She also goes off on frequent tangents before returning to the main storyline. This can make for challenging reading on the one hand, but also earned the judges’ approval on the other.
Ardoyne is a Catholic enclave in Protestant North Belfast, one of a number of Catholic areas in Belfast that are completely isolated and therefore more vulnerable. Ardoyne is written into the novel in many ways, in the unnamed, geographical detail and above all, in the way people speak. The title itself expresses the book’s Belfast and North of Ireland theme: Milkman refers to the clandestine transportation of explosives in milk crates into the Catholic areas.
Of course, the word ‘Catholic’ is never used, and neither is ‘Protestant’. Instead, there are ‘renouncers-of-the-state’ and ‘defenders-of-the-state’, those who look ‘across the border’, the others ‘across the water’. The suggestion is that the micro-culture of everyday life is the same in both communities. However, the narrator expresses the experience of the nationalist working-class community. Reflecting general, incorrect usage, the narrator refers to the two Christian denominations as opposite religions. The twain only meet in the city centre in ‘mixed’ bars and, unexpectedly, in the French evening class. Here, the teacher struggles to get students to see the apparently familiar differently. Indeed, the students are sent out to really look at a sunset – the only vivid colour in the novel, the colour that defines the book’s striking cover.
Milkman himself is a 41-year-old paramilitary sexual predator, who is stalking our narrator. She is an 18-year-old daughter of a widowed working-class mother in this particular community. It is a community under siege by the British state and its “defenders”. However, the narrator is explicitly on the margins of this community, and this is her perspective. She does not relate the experience at the centre of the community, which is probably why the novel has not been happily received by all. Her viewpoint is that the ‘renouncers’ have control over her as they do over the entire community. She is not involved in the renouncers’ activities, yet there is little she can do to separate herself and live an independent life. Milkman and another paramilitary pursue her, indeed attempt to coerce her. At the same time, the narrator does not hide the fact that this crazy situation results from the aggressive, humiliating and controlling treatment of the community by the armed forces of the occupying state.
The absence of colour, of smells, and taste, is very noticeable. People in this place and at this time do not experience life fully. This is a half-life in the shadows, a deprived life, diminished by severe restrictions, curfews, unnerving total observation by state and ‘renouncers’, brutality and violent deaths. Indeed, killings and deaths due to the all-pervasive violence far outweigh natural deaths. Every family here has lost at least one relative, frequently more. Readers, who remember those days, know how true this feels. Even children cannot imagine non-violent deaths. However, the novel does not detail these graphically. The violence is not shown, just its effect on the people within the community, its toll on their personal freedom and entitlement to human living.
Part of this dystopian feeling of greyness and absence of humane living comes from the novel’s statement that people feel unentitled to happiness, especially to a fulfilling, loving relationship with a partner. Relationships are broken off when partners get too close. This adds significantly to the feeling of a life that is lived on the margins, an incomplete life. Only the burst of colour when the students of the French class are sent to really see the sun set over Belfast Lough indicates that another way of life is possible, one which is cross-community.
Despite the sense of entrapment, some of the community in this novel rebel, and some do look for happiness. The narrator is known for reading books while walking, books that are removed from the 20th century. She wants nothing to do with this reality around her and actively tries to separate herself from it. This is not entirely successful. Others who stand out for resistance are women – both the traditional housewives who break the curfew and engage in bin-lid banging to alert neighbours to danger. Early feminists also make an appearance in the story.
Milkman is a reminder of the bad old days. It documents aspects of the working-class experience of the Troubles. Other experiences, like that at the centre of the community, are not Burns’s theme. This novel reflects in a surreal tone the experience of a young woman on the periphery of her community, but not entirely on her own. It is an experience defined above all by the military force of the imperialist British state, and the responses such violence and oppression creates in the besieged and divided population.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.