Milkman had me hooked with the very first line, “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
Its hypnotic rhythm and tone reminded me of hard-boiled fiction – tough, terse, and cynical with a touch of loneliness and dread. And yet it’s nothing like hard-boiled fiction. In fact, Milkman is like nothing I have ever read. Where do I start? It has sentences that go for miles, lengthy paragraphs, and very few chapters. It’s a complicated read.
But you know what? None of that matters when you write like Anna Burns (No Bones, Little Constructions). She has a way with words. She toys with the English language, and her voice is utterly mesmerizing and totally addictive. Reading Milkman is like being transported into a Surrealist painting – black and white images of a war-torn city juxtaposed with bright, colorful, and often hilarious fantasies of the subconscious. My eyes lapped up her words in a greedy frenzy, and they often left me a little breathless.
None of the characters in Milkman are named and the story is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. Though, based on Burns’ upbringing in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, it’s easily deduced that the story is set in Belfast during “The Troubles,” where the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups carried out bombings and other acts of extreme violence.
The setting is an urban war zone, where carrying explosives and the constant clicking of surveillance cameras are safer and more acceptable than using butter from “over the water” (England). Burns exposes a community under various forms of totalitarian control: political, gendered, and sectarian. The result is a bleak world, awash with tones of grey, where to be “unseen” is to be safe.
The narrator is an 18-year-old woman, simply called Middle Sister who, to the disgust of her community, walks-while-reading. She buries her head in 19th century books like Ivanhoe and Jane Eyre, to escape the horrifying violence that has become the norm. This gives her the unwanted stigma of being an “outsider,” a name you want to avoid if you don’t want to be noticed. Because being noticed means you are no longer one of us. You are one of them, and there is nothing worse than being a one-of-them traitor. This deviant reading-while-walking behavior attracts the unwanted attention of the milkman, a paramilitary officer hell bent on making Middle Sister his property. He stalks her, becomes her nemesis, her nightmare, and eventually threatens to make the only person she cares for, “maybe-boyfriend,” the victim of a not so “accidental” car bomb. Through rumors and hearsay, Middle Sister is dragged from the comforting embrace of invisibility into becoming dangerously “interesting,” and in this unnamed city, you have to suppress your identity in order to survive because silence is the only bit of power in this disempowering world.
Milkman oh-so-quietly refuses to fall in line with conventional genres. On the one hand, it’s a drama, with the main characters going through emotional and relational development. On the other hand, it’s a mystery, with circumstances and plot twists that beg for solving. But then again, it’s a thriller of the psychological kind, emphasizing the unstable and sometimes delusional state of its characters. It breaks all the rules.
Anna Burns has created a completely compelling and totally relevant story in Milkman. Despite being set over four decades ago, social and cultural anxieties of the time ring true to our own. In this unnamed city, men wield the power and should never be questioned, while women occupy a subordinate position. Women are hunted for men’s pleasure and are sexually harassed as part of everyday life. If they complain, they are manipulated into believing they are the ones in the wrong, or even worse, are labelled as “beyond-the-pale,” a name for those who are psychological misfits. These themes weave throughout the story, and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, make Milkman the perfect read for right now.
I was overcome with its profound sadness at the human cost of conflict. It left me ruminating for days. I can’t stress this enough, Milkman is a masterpiece of modern literary fiction. When the last page was turned, a sense of fulfillment overwhelmed me, opening a mysterious doorway to a remarkable escape into reality.