First off, congratulations on getting through Milkman! As much as I admire this novel, it can be a challenging read, with its multitude of characters with hyphenated not-quite-names, vertiginous sentences and thick atmosphere of paranoiac dread.
I mentioned in my introduction that I haven’t been able to get this book out of my head since first reading it. In fact, I’ve often thought about it in connection with recent events, be it the fear-and-conspiracy-laden coverage of the pandemic or the pernicious effects of the ongoing war in Europe. For as vivid and tangible the world described by Anna Burns is, many of the social patterns and behaviors that feature in the novel are universal. Deliberate ignorance, purposeful obliviousness, “vigilance not to be vigilant” as Burns puts it — these coping mechanisms, which are prevalent in oppressive societies, have spread to the ostensibly democratic, increasingly atomized societies as well. Paranoia and suspicion have lodged themselves in the minds of millions. State oppression and violence are on the rise, and populations either rebel, only to be ruthlessly crushed, or resignedly accept their fate. When censorship starts putting people in prison, some start censoring their very thoughts. In that light, the narrator’s fretting about discovering sunsets looks less like a funny (albeit heavy-handed) variation on the theme of deliberate numbness and more like a sensible precaution: “I wouldn’t, of course, mention it to anybody because I wasn’t confident that a sunset was acceptable as a topic to mention to anybody. Then again, rarely did I mention anything to anybody. Not mentioning was my way to keep safe.”
Needless to say, the emotional potency of this novel is highly dependent on one’s ability to relate to the main character. As it happens, I share some of her introverted and escapist tendencies — the “reading-while-walking” habit is especially unfortunate — and some of her experiences, ranging from exceedingly common occurrences, like being followed by persistent strangers in various vehicles, to slightly less common ones, like growing up in a land long possessed by a former empire with delusions of grandeur and occasionally rattled by acts of violence perpetrated against the locals by those believing themselves to be freedom fighters. Or having a “native language which I [don’t] speak.” Or considering violence to be “everybody’s main gauge for judging those around them.” There are many details in this book that I found shockingly relevant to my own experience, and Burns handles them in a way that I thought precise and resonant.
On this revisit, the ending struck me as more hopeful than on the first read-through. The first time around, it was disturbing to see the narrator’s world crumble, but the revisit made it obvious that her tribulations, while traumatizing, gave her a sense of emotional clarity and rid her of delusions. There is an urgency to the prose, and every time a violent plot development shakes the characters out of their (self-imposed, self-protective) slumber, it’s both painful and liberating. By the end, those who’ve made it out alive have figured out their wants and needs, and they are no longer lying to themselves. They are no longer paralyzed by fear or complacency, and they look into the future with clear eyes and a good sense of how to live their lives with decency and honesty.
At least I think they do. And this is why the cover of the paperback version is that cheerful shade of crimson. What did you think? (Not necessarily about the cover.)