Milkman by Anna Burns
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Much has been written about the sectarian violence in 20th century Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles,” which reached a violent peak between 1969 and 1972. It concerned a three decade conflict between Irish Catholics wanting a united Ireland free from England’s domination and British influenced Protestants known as Unionists. The British military, local police and opposing paramilitary groups made Belfast, Ireland a city under siege. Anna Burns has added to the literature with Milkman, a novel with a unique viewpoint and an Orwellian twist. It takes place in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, but the parallels to Belfast are clear. Milkman won the Man Booker Prize.
The heroine is an 18-year-old narrator referred to as “middle sister.” She walks down the street reading Ivanhoe since she hates the 20th century and its literature. One of her brothers has been shot to death in the struggle. One day, a sinister 41-year-old paramilitary officer from a world of assassins and bomb makers pulls alongside her. He is nicknamed the milkman and indicates that he knows everything about her brothers, her “maybe-boyfriend,” and her night studies.
“I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me,” middle sister says. “I would be startled by every encounter, except the last, I was to have with this man.”
“Milkman” is a slang term for hitman, one who delivers crates of bombs instead of milk. Burns lets the reader know that the milkman is eventually killed in the mysterious first sentence. “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
Somebody McSomebody is a jealous rival to the milkman and her “maybe-boyfriend,” and this sentence encapsulates the plot. There are many fascinating characters in this surreal novel; Anna Burns simply lets them reveal themselves, much in the manner of Jane Austen.
Burns had this to say about her novel’s inspiration: “I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could.”
Milkman with its long sentences turning into large paragraphs full of rich details and many asides is a daunting read. Her prose resembles Joyce, Faulkner and Virginia Woolf when it comes to fractured but dazzling images strung together and separated by dashes and semicolons. Here is middle sister’s description of her father’s depression. They were "big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions."
Burns also writes with a compassionate irony viewing these tragic people who must name their children with the “right” names, drink the “right” tea and the “right” whiskey, and never marry someone with the “wrong” religion. Informers disappear.
With few exceptions, critics have praised Milkman. Ron Charles of Book World said, “It’s the last great novel of the year. Possibly the most challenging one, too.” Dwight Garner of the New York Times insists that “‘Milkman’” requires so much effort for so modest a result.”
The female narrator is a survivor in a dangerous volatile world. How can anyone resist a young woman who reads aloud The Exorcist to her much-younger siblings before bed?
Milkman by Anna Burns will take its place with celebrated Irish Literature.
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Milkman by Anna Burns