Milkman, by Anna Burns

Milkman, by Anna Burns: on silence, gossips, social isolation and collective madness

Anna Burns’s 2018 Booker Prize Winner, Milkman, is the heir of a tradition of novels which build up stifling worlds where words are dangerous, worlds we wouldn’t want to live in, yet worlds we may live in one day, if we don’t already. In Milkman, we find echoes of the anxious quest of K, in Kafka’s Trial, who tries in vain to understand what he is accused of. Like in 1984, the simplest statements are charged with the ominous insinuations of Orwellian Newspeak. Women are scrutinized, accused and punished when really, they are the victims, not unlike Atwood’s handmaids. The narrator, whom we only know as “middle sister”, is our guide and translator, navigating in a community where words and facts never seem to keep their basic and straight meaning. Although this is never mentioned explicitly, the novel is supposed to take place in Northern Ireland, in the late 1970s, during the violent years of the Troubles. We understand that middle sister is from a Catholic family (“the right religion”) and lives in an area governed by “renouncers of the state”, members of the IRA who fought for Northern Ireland’s independence from Great Britain. In this context, a young woman who likes to read while she walks, is approached by a man whom everyone calls Milkman though he is no milkman, and from there, finds herself caught in a network of gossips tainting her reputation, twisting her words, acts and intentions, surrounding her in a disquieting isolation.

Many things happen in Milkman, yet what you take away from Anna Burns’s novel is not the story, but the unforgettable prose. Milkman is all about its writing. The audio book, read by Brid Brennan, exalts the text. Brennan makes you hear the rhythm specific to Northern Ireland, a music that, sometimes, is not unlike rap, and if you don’t pay close attention, you may be lulled to distraction and fall into a form of hypnose conveyed by the rhythmic and repetitive prose, and misread the story altogether. Which makes you understand how careful middle sister must be to navigate in the murky waters of the gossips and lies of a vicious community. But let the text speak for itself: “That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything.” What matters in Milkman is not what happens but what people think. As middle sister herself notes: “Taken on their own, or to describe each incident separately, particularly, while in the middle of it, might not seem, once relayed, to be all that much at all.” (p181) And because what people think is so important, middle sister always has to explain, to clarify, to pacify when she can, in any case, to do her utmost possible so as not to leave any space for doubt. In a community where you can so easily be misunderstood, grammatical ellipses are to be avoided and middle sister takes pain over long detours detailing every act, every fact, with its history, genealogy, origins, reasons for being.

Milkman, by Anna Burns, with a gradient of Zoya bottles
Milkman, by Anna Burns. And four Zoya polishes.

Anna Burns takes her reader in a small community where everybody knows everybody, where everyone judges one another, and where you are always presumed guilty, especially if you deviate from the norm. Middle sister deviates from the norm because she likes to read books, and she likes to read while she walks, which makes her utterly incomprehensible to her entourage. Not prone to small talk, she is not easy to engage with in conversation. Walking through an area devastated by a bomb, she finds a baby cat’s head in the ruins of a church. This upsets her so much that she can’t stand letting it there and takes it with her, to give it a proper burial, some green space to rest. But this random act of kindness, precisely because it is practically useless, pure and genuine compassion, will make her look even more suspicious than she already was. The fact that Milkman appears suddenly at her side during this episode incriminates her even further — because, as desolate as the place may be, there are eyes to watch her every movement. All this is held against her and gives arguments to her opponents who define her as arrogant and not to be associated with. She is progressively isolated within her community and has no one to turn to for help and advice. While she struggles to find the right attitude, the one that will spare her venomous comments, she muses on her fate and asks to her ‘longest friend’ who warns her about her status of outcast: “‘Just because I’m outnumbered in my reading-while-walking,’ I said, ‘doesn’t mean I’m wrong. What if one person happened to be sane, longest friend, against a whole background, a race mind, that wasn’t sane, that person would probably be viewed by the mass consciousness as mad — but would that person be mad?’ ‘Yes’, said friend, ‘if their persisted in their version of life in the stacked-up odds of an opposing world.” (p201). These are sound questions to ask when you’re part of a community that becomes progressively engaged in a collective frenzy, and one of the underlying questions to Milkman is how to keep a healthy mind in a thoroughly unhealthy environment.

To this question, middle sister’s answer is isolation and escape. Her two means of escape are reading-while-walking and running. Making free use of her body and of the communal space, she goes running alone in a disreputable park. If Milkman’s first encounter happens while she is reading-while-walking, the one that impresses and worries middle sister most is when Milkman appears right next to her while she is running in that park. Not only does she understand that he is stalking her and can find her whenever he wants, but as she is also photographed with him, she realizes that she might be recognized as a political trouble-maker. Shortly after, she finds that her legs no longer work properly, to the bafflement of her third-brother-in-law with whom she often goes running, and she gives up this freedom. Her other escape is in  books, which she chooses as different from her environment as possible, devouring novels from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century, never picking any book from the twentieth. Middle sister thus appears to be a free soul, making free use of the collective space and the collective literary legacy, reading the classics such as Ivanhoe or Jane Eyre, in which the often harsh treatments suffered by women might help middle sister process what is happening to her. It is not surprising, then, that she would incur her community’s distrust, a community which tries to break her with the power of rumors.

Milkman, by Anna Burns, with some Zoya bottles

Anna Burns’ main character is bound to receive criticism from her community because of her difference, but Burns doesn’t fail to highlight the fact that her gender has something to do with it. It is okay for Milkman to harass middle sister but it is not okay for her to read while walking, as longest friend assures her. No matter how truthful middle sister is, when she dares confiding in someone, more often than not, she is not believed. So this three-hundred-ish-page novel is also about the silencing of women. When a group of feminists is formed within the community (historically, the Women’s Liberation Movement), they are disparagingly called “the issue women” because they dare bring up all the problems women face because of patriarchy. Even though they courageously face the “renouncers of the state” to continue their activities, they are said to need a man to get rid of the spiders that are in the shed they want to convert in their meeting-room (thank you Monika for pointing this out!). And the fact that middle sister knows and repeats this is proof that the “issue women’s” request to keep this secret wasn’t respected, for how necessary it is to listen to women’s petitions?

Yet when women are authorized to speak, we discover that not only do they have things to say, but they also have unique and witty voices. Middle sister, being the narrator, is of course the most obvious example. The humour that, despite the heavy atmosphere, diffuses the text is unpredictable and delicious. Take this instance, when middle sister explains the eventual reason why a young man who assaulted her with a gun was punished: “I heard finally that (…) the coterie sitting in judgment upon McSomebody quietly dropped the quarter-rape charge which had had a random ‘oh, how about we just say it was this’ quality to it anyway. Instead they charged him with taking guns unauthorized from dumps to use for getting dates with girls purposes, which was not, they admonished, what guns were supposed to be used for.” (312) The discrepancy created by this euphemism, the implicit suggestion of what could have happened if the young man had used the gun in “the proper way”, the unexpectedness of the final charge (he has, after all, sexually and violently assaulted a young woman) are at once unnerving and hilarious, and show that the values and priorities of this community are up-side-down, which makes it very difficult to survive.

If you want to go further, I warmly recommend this essay by Francesca Cappossela, in which she brilliantly interprets the refusal to name, suggesting it’s a subversive way of highlighting intimacy, and comes up with a penetrating and masterly analysis of the distrust for the figure of speech, which prompts middle sister’s urge to translate everything, until she doesn’t need to anymore. There are many other elements that would need unpacking and scrutinizing. Milkman is a dense and demanding read. It requires your close reading, your entire and undisturbed attention. Only then will it reveal the many subtle layers that make it a masterpiece. 

Milkman, by Anna Burns
Milkman, by Anna Burns.

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