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Review: Milkman by Anna Burns


In a city of proclamations and whispers, being interesting is taking a risk. Walking the streets with your head always in a nineteenth century book is viewed as reckless then. And yet, that is what middle sister does. At eighteen years old, she is not enacting a small rebellion, she is simply doing as pleases her. Aside from flagrant reading of Dostoevsky and Dickens, middle sister is a normal teenager: she sees her partly-secret maybe-boyfriend several times a week, bats off questions of marriage from her mother who knows nothing of her love life, and helps take care of little sisters with her father dead and gone. She is navigating her sectarian-divided community numbed to violence as well as many, until, that is, Milkman appears on the scene. An older man, rumoured to be a renouncer, and Milkman by name but not, seemingly, by profession.

Middle sister may not give Milkman any encouragement, but rumours start that this young girl has taken up with a married man, more than twenty years her senior. And a renouncer at that. Gossip foreshadows violence in the close-knit society and so it is that middle sister must disprove an unprovable while neither becoming too ‘interesting’ or being considered ‘beyond the pale’ and ostracised from her community.

Although it is never explicitly stated, Milkman (2018) appears to be set in 1970’s Belfast (where Anna Burns grew up) and with talk of those ‘over the water’ and people of ‘the other religion’, it is impossible to situate it anywhere else more clearly in one’s mind. However, by shying away from specifics, Burns has made this a story that transposes itself to any of the many besieged communities around the world. It is a universal depiction of tribalism, of a society seeming to knit itself together in opposition to an external force but in so doing, managing to cause fractures through itself.

With this scope, it is unsurprising Milkman won the Booker Prize for 2018. It has the feel of heft the moment one opens its pages and discovers dense blocks of text with sentences that run on and on, like the book’s characters, difficult to separate from one another. The sense of interconnectedness is hugely important to the claustrophobia of middle sister’s story. Almost all the characters are referred to not by their names but by their relation to other people in the community. It seems impossible to have an identity of one’s own.

With middle sister primed to leave her teenage years, the forming of one’s identity is an important issue for her: she does not want to marry immediately – to become one of the housewives whose gossip keeps the menfolk in check – but nor is she allowed to carry on her quiet life of running and reading without question. It is as if her community cannot accept that anyone can be apolitical. Reading books from a century past, refusing to accede to a renouncer’s advances but equally refusing to join the small (and much-ridiculed) feminist group that springs up, middle sister refuses – whether she thinks of it this way or not – to join the binary options presented her. Instead, she prefers to live outside of them – not ignoring them but not engaging them either – and this is something that her community struggles with.

Perhaps it is for this reason that gossip about middle sister is inevitable. If she will not declare herself a problem nor assimilate into the community then fabricated deeds or misdeeds are required so that the community may make an assessment of middle sister: is she in or out? Milkman’s advances (to put it accurately, his harassment) offer her a recognised path: to attach herself to one of those reckless renouncers who end up dead or flipped by the police. Were she to take up Milkman’s offer, middle sister would tread a previously-explored path. The community would treat her with quiet reverence while she lived under the protection – by association – of Milkman, and turn against her when he was out of the picture. Rebuffing his advances barely seems to make a difference. Whispers tell the story that middle sister’s society can cope with and paint her as another daft girl chasing after those dangerous men who challenge the state.

Her pursuit by Milkman and his associates is an excellent evocation of women’s lack of control in this society: “I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man. Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.” Middle sister has long been taught, as all girls have, that unless it comes to physical violence or lurid insult, then nothing has happened. And so, she is forced into silence. As she later observes, “I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man... Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

While she is experiencing the power of widely told half-truths, middle sister’s maybe-boyfriend is experiencing his own version of societal law. An avid fan of automobiles, maybe boyfriend’s house is cluttered with car parts. However, this seemingly innocuous fact puts him in a great deal of danger when one of the local men decides to take issue with a part that belongs to a car made ‘over the water’. Maybe boyfriend is no more allowed than middle sister to exist outside of politics and he is faced with accusations of treachery for harbouring a car part that represents, apparently, the detestable ‘other’ from over the water. Drawing apolitical pleasure from the object is not even countenanced as an explanation in a society where there is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”





It is near impossible to exist in this “psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification”. Middle sister and maybe boyfriend consider taking up in a house on an infamous street together, refusing to marry but bringing their two lives together to offer one another some stability. However, in a strict Catholic society, anything so liberal as living in sin is still viewed with deep suspicion. For middle sister, marrying a nice boy of the right religion and temperament (that is, not an active renouncer) and starting a family seems to be about the only option open to her that will not immediately scandalise society. Oh, to be young and have life so full of possibilities.

Burns is brilliant at conjuring up a world so tightly controlled by whispers that everyone lives in fear of doing – or being seen to do – the wrong thing. The lack of geographical certainty about where the story takes places only helps to focus the reader’s mind on the mental and emotional geography of the main characters. Very little is allowed to be exact and the rambling sentences that make up the narrative create the giddy patchwork of a story that is far from middle sister’s control. Getting this right is a difficult feat for a writer – exactness is often pressed as something to strive for in the written word – but Burns gets inexactness exactly right. Middle sister keeps the reader at a distance but among the dense paragraphs, there are some superb sentences that are reminiscent of Joyce’s parallel use of language to convey ideas. For Burns, these are not the norm, but occasionally a turn of phrase leaps from the page.

I am nowhere near having read all the books longlisted for last year’s Booker, but it is not difficult to see why Milkman won the prize. Stylistically it is poised and elegantly done; thematically, it touches on issues big and small. For middle sister, growing pains take all this in: “The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb, but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, be present, be adult.” One of the Booker judges suggested Milkman is a book that, despite being worth it, is difficult to read, but A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing this is not. Certainly, the lack of names and the meaty paragraphs may put some readers off, but this is not a book that requires extreme scrutiny to be understood: it is powerful without being obtuse. It is a book that can be recommended without hesitation. And I do.

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