The narrator of Milkman, the third novel by Northern Irish author Anna Burns, keeps her cards close to her chest. So close, in fact, that we never learn her name. We never get to know the names of her friends and family or the place she lives in; she trusts us enough to glean the contours of the setting and the situation from context clues, but she never trusts us completely. The reason for her emphatic anonymity becomes clear on the very first page: her tale begins with violence and murder in a community depicted so naturalistically that the withholding of identifying details seems to be a prudent choice. As she looks back at her early life trying to take stock of the past, she continues to censor her own thinking out of habit and self-preservation.
Cautious as she is, she knows how to start a story with a bang: we learn of the death of the titular “milkman” in the first sentence of the novel. The action appears to take place somewhere in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, a decade into the Troubles; the heroine is an 18-year-old in a sprawling conservative family with possible ties to the IRA. When she is repeatedly approached by a stranger who drives a white van (a vehicle so conspicuous it inspires the locals to call him “milkman”), everyone assumes the two are having an affair. After it turns out that the stranger is a high-ranking nationalist, the heroine’s already shaky standing in the community grows weaker by the day while her relationships with her loved ones — her “maybe-boyfriend” and her best friend — slowly deteriorate. As things unravel, the strength of her character and her community at large is tested by prejudice, misogyny (internalized and loudly externalized), bullying, victim-blaming, homophobia, and many more things extant but unnamed.
If all this sounds too bleak, bear in mind that Milkman is often very funny. Burns gives her narrator a deadpan sense of humor that finds comic undertones in the darkest of circumstances and softens the blow when the truth becomes unbearable. Much of the novel’s humor lies in the way the heroine expresses herself: her manner of speaking is a unique, sometimes confounding blend of bureaucratese and vernacular replete with invented compound nouns, euphemisms and understatements. She constantly talks in circles, overcorrecting and recontextualizing — clipped phrases stitched into run-on sentences snowballing into circuitous paragraphs — while seemingly trying to reveal as little as possible. It’s not so much doublethink as trynottothink — a necessity in a place where common decency is considered a “mental aberration” and where hostile agents are always waiting in the wings, listening and taking pictures. The prose, so conversational yet so introspective, so full of energy and palpable anger, is the most interesting aspect of the novel. By plunging so deeply into the narrator’s headspace, Burns demonstrates how ways of thinking and habits are shaped by living in an oppressive society and how many of our actions, whether we want them to or not, form part of the political landscape.
This is a distinctive, furious and hilarious novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about in the three years since I first read it, and I look forward to hearing what you think about it.
The Solute Book Club. Easy to join! Just read Milkman by Anna Burns during May and check back at The Solute for a discussion article on May 27.