It took me a while to figure out why there’s an image of a sunset on the cover of Milkman, Anna Burns’s 2018 Man Booker winner. This is a novel about about a young girl’s battle to stay safe and sane in a divided and violent town that is probably Belfast, circa 1978. She’s eighteen, and with her habit of walking while reading pre-twentieth century fiction, is steadily becoming one of those ‘beyond the pale’ people who don’t fit in.
The young narrator has already lost one brother to the ‘troubles’ and a sister to exile, her late father was plagued by depression, so she keeps her head down and her mouth shut where possible. When a senior member of the paramilitary known as ‘the milkman’ takes an interest in her, she draws fury from her family and neighbours even though she does her best to avoid him. He’s over forty, married and with veiled threats against her ‘maybe boyfriend’, is clearly stalking her.
The novel follows the girl’s battle to be herself in an environment marred by terrorism and reprisals, where you have to watch what you say and do, even what you buy (nothing that comes from that place ‘over the water’). Meanwhile the milkman is never far away, and her fears for what he will do next disrupt her life, and she becomes increasingly withdrawn. She even stops going to French classes, where one lesson their teacher has them look at the sunset, something she once did with maybe boyfriend, and which isn’t the sort of thing people tend to do.
Yet the book is oddly humorous. The quirky narrative style takes a bit of getting used to -with long, complex, stream-of-consciousness sentences and paragraphs that go on for pages at a time. But they bring you inside the mind of an engaging, smart and aware young person. Oh, and did I mention the characters’ names? Well, there really aren’t any. As with ‘maybe boyfriend’ people are referred to as ‘third sister’, ‘first brother-in-law’, ‘tablets girl’. It kind of adds to the disconnect the girl has with her world or possibly it helps the characters see themselves as blending in, not standing out. Names can be revealing.
Essentially this is a historical novel, but unlike most historical novels, the specifics of places, dates and names of personnel are missing in favour of creating the feeling of the time and circumstances. I cannot imagine reading anything else that recreates so well the effects of sectarian violence on ordinary people, and particularly women. The rumours, the assumptions of guilt, a fear of loving in case the beloved is killed or imprisoned, the need to conform, the lack of sunset appreciation.
Read Milkman when you have some time to sit and concentrate; when you can get into the feel of the writing and let it draw you into its world. If you can read it with that Northern Irish lilt in your head, even better. It’s a worthy award winner and for me a four and a half star read.