This review by Imogen Morrell is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.
Anna Burns’s Milkman depicts the nameless, the placeless, and the quietest acts of rebellion. This seems in tension with a novel that is, in many ways, precisely situated and politically saturated. Milkman is a distinctly Irish text: Tristram Shandy looms and Beckettian cadence elucidates. And despite never saying so, the novel’s historical context alludes to Northern Ireland during the Troubles, sandwiched between ‘the land “over the water” and the land “over the border”’.
Despite certain specificities, Milkman is extensively cast with a litany of epithets and sobriquets: ‘tablets girl’, ‘maybe-boyfriend’, ‘second sister’, ‘renouncer-of-the-state’, ‘defender-of-the-state’, ‘third brother-in-law’, ‘chef’, ‘longest friend’, ‘real milkman’ and ‘milkman’. Milkman is not a real milkman, but rather a senior paramilitary who follows, stalks and quietly threatens our nameless narrator, while she walks and runs through the parks and reservoirs of her district.
This is a story supported by ‘gossips and rumour-mongers’ who amorphously sing the chorus of Burns’s novel, scrutinising, alienating, and condemning the bookish protagonist for embarking on an alleged affair with Milkman. Worse than this crime is her daily transgression of walking while reading a book; of being both unprotected and engrossed, ignorant and superior. She is criticised for her literary perversions: ‘It’s the way you do it – reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed’.
Her privacy in public is a vehicle for dissent, and is an affront to both the neighbours and her gender. Men take many shapes, yet are similar in their sometimes benign, sometimes dangerous ‘mission of idolatry’, and often ‘supreme glorification’ of women. Echoing such expectations, mothers sing the ‘female destiny’, the ‘daily round’, and the ‘common task’. Marking herself outside of such a spinning burden leaves Milkman’s protagonist ‘beyond-the-pale’, an ‘issue woman’, rumoured to enjoy ‘back-to-front reading, starting on the last page’, despite the surrounding ‘gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots’.
Although the French class cries that ‘Le ciel est bleu! Le ciel est bleu!’, the narrator sees that the sky is ‘new colours arriving, all colours combining’; she sees the love that her mother has for the real milkman despite the years; she sees a brother-in-law regret and reclaim his adoration of a poisoned woman. Consequential violence occurs off-stage, while revelations occur irrevocably within the details.