The title of this book doesn’t give much away. On the first pages we hear about ‘the milkman’ or ‘this milkman,’ a middle-aged married paramilitary leader who apparently has nothing to do with milk, but has, at least according to neighbourhood gossip, quite a lot to do with the novel’s narrator. It seems that in the confusing, claustrophobic neighbourhood in which she lives, facts (like names and objective reality) are far less important than public opinion.
Set against the Troubles, ‘Milkman’ explores the emotional toll of living in an unofficial war zone. Our eighteen-year-old unreliable narrator tries to stay apart from the conflict, but her inability to conform to the truth as perceived by her community, whether on a political or personal level, increasingly marks her out as an outsider. And, in this place, to be an outsider is even more dangerous than to be an insider. Our poor narrator thinks she understands the rules because ‘all ordinary people … understood the basics of what was allowed and not allowed, of what was neutral and could be exempted from preferences, from nomenclature, from emblems and from outlooks.’ In a bravura passage near the start of the book we’re told how this is exemplified by the community’s attitude to names, including a long list of approved and prohibited names – ‘the banned names were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoinments and resisted impositions as laid down long ago in this country by that country … but there was no list of the names that were allowed. Every resident was supposed to know what was permitted based on what was not permitted.’ It’s no surprise that the book itself is so scared of words, with characters being defined by personality, affiliation or relationship but never by anything so concrete or personal as an identifiable name.
On one level, the novel’s story concerns the narrator’s struggles against her unjustified but nonetheless frighteningly real association with the Milkman. On another level it is a coming-of-age story about someone tentatively but deliberately breaking free from the constricting community around her. As the book progresses, the very act of narration is shown to be subversive through its ability to engage with complexity and nuance. In a breath-taking scene, we see how the students in an evening class respond when faced with a beautiful sunset:
‘The sky is blue,’ came us. ‘What colour else can it be?
Of course we knew really that the sky could be more than blue, two more, but why should any of us admit to that? I myself have never admitted it. Not even the week before when I experienced my first sunset with maybe-boyfriend did I admit it. Even then, even though there were more colours than the acceptable three in the sky – blue (the day sky), black (the night sky) and white (clouds) – that evening still I kept my mouth shut. And now the others in the class – all older than me, some as old as thirty – also weren’t admitting it. It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility? Failed too, in the interrogation of the consequences of seeing more than we could cope with? Worse, what if it was nice, whatever it was, and we liked it, got used to it, were cheered up by it, came to rely on it only for it to be wrenched away, never to come back again? Better not to have had it in the first place was the prevailing feeling and that was why blue was the colour for our sky to be.
‘Milkman’ is complex, poignant and extremely impressive. It shows how literature can explore truth in the most unpromising of places and ensures that I’ll be looking out for Anna Burns’ name in bookshops – no matter the ambivalence in her presentation of notoriety, intelligence and fierce, independent ambition.