The novel, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, sets the reader on edgeby Catherine Humble / October 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
In a passage from Milkman—Anna Burns’s third novel, which has won this year’s Man Booker Prize—the narrator, known as “Middle sister,” walks home one night alone and nearly treads on a decapitated cat’s head. The 18-year-old decides to pick up this chilling symbol of everyday gruesomeness—she wants to bury it. This is 1970s Northern Ireland the air thick with drizzle and suspicion. In such a place, at such a time, if you’re not a paramilitary—on either side—to appear anything but “normal” can be deadly.
We soon learn that Middle sister is on a “watch list.” While others survive on gossip and hearsay, she stands out—she has a habit of “walking-while-reading” around town (her desperate attempt to block out reality).
Milkman documents how living under terror can wreck a childhood. Rooted in 1970s Northern Irish culture, the novel also takes a wider look at the mental effects of a violently torn state: how normalised brutality can shut down a person. Middle sister’s inability to belong to her own experience is striking; amid collusion, constant rumours and suspected informants, blanking out is her form of survival.
And so, in the creepy half-light of this story, the reader, like the community, watch on, as Middle sister begins to be mercilessly stalked by Milkman—a well-known paramilitary—whose nefarious omnipresence pulls apart her already delicately held together life. Even Middle sister’s “maybe boyfriend” isn’t quite what he seems.
To read Milkman is to be on edge. An anxiety is built into the misty sentences. True to her Irish oral tradition, Burns writes for the ear as well as the eye, in repetitious, echoing prose that captures something of the circling state of trauma. This novel is a powerful evocation of a young woman who refuses to comply in a world where being “normal” is a lifeline.
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber, £14.99)