Milkman – Anna Burns
Man Booker Prize Winner 2018
The Reading Desk is pleased to welcome Barbara De Garcia as our Guest, to provide us with her wonderful review of Milkman.
An unconventional book about an unconventional girl, living in times where life was highly conventionalized within the respective communities (working class Catholic and working-class Protestant). The vision of an 18-year-old female walking for long distances through Belfast of the Troubles era, while reading classics such as Jane Eyre, is nuts. She describes the route as crossing through areas of one community or the other, including the “ten-minute zone” – a “no man’s land” between the two warring communities. I wondered about a woman or even a man and a woman running long distances through the city during those times. Depending on the decade, and the neighbourhoods, it might have been crazy or impossible. Absolutely surreal.
The city is never named. The opposing forces are never named. We know the girl is Catholic because, for one, her mother has a large number of children. I was so protected as a Catholic girl, I had no idea when I got to college (university) and people asked me about my family, how they knew I was Catholic when I told them I was the oldest of 6 children. It took me a full year to figure it out. Labels in the novel are never straightforward and are more likely to be understood by readers who know something of the landscape of the Troubles. The renouncer is a brilliant name for republican militants. “Over the sea” means British and “over the border” – the Irish Republic. While families with loads of kids are assumed to be Catholic, in other communities they could be, for example, Orthodox Jews.
About names … Somebody Mc Somebody was my favourite name for a character. I love the terms for “whats-her-name” in other languages. In Spanish it’s fulana. The phrase has its own word! And we have the Milkman -not just one as there appear to be more than one. A milkman is a person who one expects to see and is indeed welcome as the daily deliverer of milk and other dairy products – a light in a dreary city. Is he sinister or ?? More important to note, that historically in Northern Ireland, your name, your address, the school you attended, where (or if) you work, tell the inquirer what community – Protestant or Catholic – you are part of. As Burns notes, although there were people who weren’t either, in the Belfast of that time, they weren’t visible, weren’t considered.
Seamus Heaney’s poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” describes the ethos of the time. The entire poem is available at http://www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/sh-what.htm
Language play is highly valued in Irish culture. It is used to confuse outsiders, to delight, to obscure, and control. Other reviewers have mentioned comparisons to Eimear McBride and Lisa McInerney, but I’d like to throw in other references, at the risk of giving hackneyed examples. Perhaps, because I am currently reading Samuel Beckett’s novels, that comparison occurred to me. And maybe because I’ve read Ulysses more than once, I found the girl’s wandering the city reminiscent of Leopold Bloom. It is wonderful to see a new generation of writers, particularly women, breaking away from the strictures of the past. Ireland, both the Republic and Northern Ireland, lived for decades under the constraints of both Protestant and Catholic puritanism, which at the end of the 20th century, have been broken.
Not (initially) an easy read but one well worth the effort.