Milkman by Anna Burns, may be set in 1970s Belfast, against the backdrop of the troubles, but it is not a historical novel. The city is never named, much like the novel’s characters. They are referred to with titles such as ‘middle sister’ and ‘maybe boyfriend’. The book views the conflict that engulfed Belfast at the time from the eyes of an eighteen year old girl with no interest in the Troubles. She hides from the world around her by burying her head in 19th century novels as she walked because she ‘did not like the 20th century’. This act of eccentricity marks her as ‘beyond the pale’ and therefore her activities are seen as suspicious by many in her community. When a paramilitary known as ‘the milkman’ becomes possessive and begins to stalk her, it is automatically assumed by many in the community that they are having an affair. This leads to her place in society falling even further, as the effects of the milkman’s actions cause a strain on her mental health and relationships.
The violence of the troubles is never explicitly shown in Milkman. However, the oppression of ordinary people by paramilitary and State forces through tribalism and the patriarchal nature of warfare is very much evident. Every character has to be careful not to be seen with the wrong type of newspaper, buying the wrong type of butter or drinking the wrong type of tea. This feeling of constant surveillance feels far more sinister than a graphic description of torture or murder.
Millkman is definitely not a fun beach read. Anna Burns has a very specific and unique writing style which can make it quite hard to follow at times. However that does not take from the fact this is truly a phenomenal and original piece of work.
Photo: Milkman Book cover, published by Faber and Faber
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