You’ll all have heard about Milkman, the somewhat surprise Booker Prize winner in 2018, and how this changed the life of author Anna Burns, who had been struggling to make ends meet (despite having won other prizes previously). You may also have heard the whole brouhaha about whether it is a difficult read or not, with the New York Times describing it as a ‘willfully demanding and opaque stream-of-consciousness novel’, while the British Times said it was ‘challenging and experimental’ as if hurling accusations at it.
But you know what? I didn’t find it difficult at all. It’s not only a fascinating portrayal of a certain time and place (Belfast in the 1970s, let’s not pretend we don’t know), but it builds upon oral tradition. When you read it, you often feel like you’re listening to the old men, the aunties, the grannies talking – which fits perfectly with the ‘persistent rumours and gossip’ theme of the book, but also links to the timeless classical world, the chorus of Ancient Greek tragedies.
Yet, in spite of the often tragic consequences of rumours, the inability to defend yourself, the deafness to reason, the dangerous silences and ommissions that were such a defining part of the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there is much that is recognisable, mundane and downright funny in this book too.
One of the things that seems to bug readers and reviewers is that none of the characters have proper names. Instead, they are known by their role in their family or community, by their relationship to others. The milkman who keeps pursuing our narrator (simply known as Middle Sister) is not a milkman but a paramilitary, so there is another character in the story who is known as ‘the real milkman’. There are ‘wee sisters’, first and third brothers and sisters (and second ones which must not be mentioned), maybe-boyfriends, longest friends and so on. It sounds messy, but you’ll soon get your head around it. Besides, it’s a great way of describing a society where everyone is almost afraid of giving their real names, for fear of being instantly labelled and typecast in an inescapably divided and claustrophobic society. A timely reminder as the Irish Border is being debated in the whole sorry Brexit tale.
As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them, at’our community’ and ‘their community, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes… then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side… The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to… And of course there were bus stops. There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.
Middle Sister is 18, bookish, reading and very much trying to stay out of trouble and remain neutral (which, as we’ve seen is impossible in her world). She buries herself in 19th century literature, which she reads while walking (I suppose this is the equivalent of wearing earphones nowadays), and is therefore considered somewhat strange and ‘beyond the pale’ in her community. She has a semi-detached relationship with her maybe-boyfriend, is not terribly close to her mother or older siblings, although she does her fair share of looking after her precocious wee sisters. When she gets accosted by the milkman, a rather notorious and dangerous figure in their neighbourhood, she does her best to shake him off, but the rumour mill goes into overdrive, and everyone, including her own mother, believes she is involved with him, that she is one of those paramilitary groupies. She gives up trying to convince the people around her that this isn’t true, but she doesn’t realise that by refusing to play the game she is making herself stand out even more. She gains a reputation for being eccentric, different, and therefore ‘dangerous’ because undefinable. Although she wouldn’t describe herself as a ‘shiny person’ (someone full of optimism and idealism), her effect on the community is very much that of a shiny person, which she astutely observes elsewhere.
These people could not be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that… The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darknes ran the risk of not outliving it, of having their own shininess subsumed into it and, in some cases, it might even reach the point of that individual having to lose his or her physical life… This was why you didn’t get many shining people in environments overwhelmingly consisting of fear and sorrow.
In this community of limited choices, women and especially young girls like our narrator are particularly hard done by. Their mothers fret that they should get married as soon as possible; they are not allowed to aspire to any career or to escape anywhere outside their community – or risk being forever ostracised; they pour out children one after the other; they watch their lovers, husbands and sons get tugged this way and that, expecting them to get arrested or blown up at any point. Above all, they are not listened to, not taken seriously, disbelieved, as we can see in the case of Middle Sister. And yet… when the women of the community band together, they can be remarkably powerful and change the course of things. See what happens when they decide they’ve had enough of imposed curfews and snap:
… these women would break the curfew by taking off their aprons, putting on their coats, shawls, scarves and with the bush telegraph already up and running, they’d go out their doors in their hundreds and deliberately, and permitless, and after eighteen hundred hours or just sixteen hundred hours, encumber the pavements, the streets, every patch of disallowed curfew territory, amply spreading themselves all around. Not just themselves either. With them would be their children, their screaming babies, their housepets of assorted dogs, rabbits, hamsters and turtles. Also, they’d be wheeling their prams and carrying their pennants, their banners, their placards and shouting, ‘CURFEW’S OVER!’
It’s only right to acknowledge here that the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement might not have happened without the contribution of Catholic and Protestant women’s groups led by Monica McWilliams and May Blood, who joined forces to establish the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and who thought much more than the political parties about the long-term agenda of social cohesion, integration and education.
The interior monologue is not that difficult to follow and the voice is instantly captivating. The reason why some may struggle with the book is that we don’t often get to hear such voices in English literature. It is chatty, very different to the more tight-lipped, repressed English style, and it is occasionally repetitive, much like listening to a garrulous old person reminiscing about their youth. It is perhaps more similar to the Mediterranean style of circling around a subject, full of divagations and distractions. It brings Javier Marias and Elena Ferrante to mind, so I can’t help thinking it might have been more easily accepted as a prize-winner if it had been a work in translation. (More about this in another post: why so many translated novels seem to be heavily experimental, therefore catering to a rather niche audience.)
I found this powerful, and, like all of my most memorable books, an irresistible blend of tragedy and farce, the universal and the particular. If Lisa McInerney captures the world of young people in present-day Cork with humour, sarcastic bite and poignancy, then Anna Burns does the same for young people in Northern Ireland in the 1970/80s. But her themes speak to any divided society, deeply distrustful of each other.