Anna Burns’s Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is narrated by an unnamed 18-year-old woman and is set in an unnamed neighborhood in an unnamed city in the 1970s. To someone who has no taste at all for fiction set out as fable or allegory, such coyness with specifics does not sound promising. It sounds like another instance of a novel in which the particular has been bleached out to emphasize some universal predicament and high-minded message. But that is not at all what we have here. We have, instead, a very fine novel about a fully realized character living in particular time and place.
Milkman is set in what is unambiguously Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the last third of the twentieth century; and we can confidently assume that the neighborhood at its center is based on Belfast’s Ardoyne, the Catholic district where the author grew up. Further, the lack of names—or, rather their circumvention—is very much of that time and place; here, geography breaks down into “over the water” (England), “over the road” (Protestant areas), “over the border,” (the Republic), and—not least—“the usual place” which is the graveyard for “renouncers” (members of the IRA). Actual names, however, are not entirely absent: Early on, Burns’s narrator delivers a wonderful, entirely accurate recitation of those forbidden for males in her enclave, names banned because they smack of “over the water” and “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, with the original nationality of the name now not in the running at all.” Among the sixty-some names she lists are Nigel, Jason, Norman, Reginald, Ernest, George, Harvey, Lawrence (and Laurence), as well as such obvious ones as Winston, Clive, and Algernon. There are no forbidden female names because, as becomes increasingly clear, women don’t signify: “Wrong girl names did not connote the same taunting, long-memory, back-dated, we-shall-not-forget historical-distaste reaction as was the case with wrong boy names.” So much, for the moment, for names.
Milkman’s narrator is one of her parents’ ten children. Her father, who is dead, was prey to “moods and psychologicals,” which is to say, clinical depression. One of her brothers has already been killed in sectarian fighting and all around her are families who have lost members to the same thing. Renouncers hold sway in this district and everything revolves around them, including the presence of constant surveillance and spot interrogations by state security forces. Our narrator has sought haven in nineteenth-century novels, making a practice of reading as she walks down the road. This is unusual behavior and thus frowned upon in this fearful, conformist, self-policing community. It is especially reprehensible in that it is being done by a woman, one flouting her proper role—which is to say, she is expressing independence and has, in the parlance of the community, put herself “beyond the pale.” Others also designated as “beyond the pale” are “nuclear boy” (obsessed with the threat of nuclear war) “tablet girl” ( a serial poisoner) and those turbulent females, “issue women” (feminists).
The narrator’s situation becomes dire when she begins to be stalked by a notorious renouncer called the Milkman. He pops up everywhere, knows everything about her, and makes increasingly insinuating and threatening remarks about her and her boyfriend of sorts. Though she shuns him, an ever-burgeoning rumor, started by one of her brothers-in-law— another creepy character—reports that she is having an affair with this married, 41-year-old renouncer. She finds that there’s no use denying it. Fear, suspicion, and toxic rumor rule this neighborhood which has lost touch with the world, seeing everything through its own fantastic lens. She tells her mother, who refuses to believe she’s not carrying on with the Milkman, why she no longer defends herself: “I’d have lost power, such as was my power, if I’d tried to explain and to win over all those gossiping about me. So I kept silent, I said. I’d asked no questions, answered no questions, gave no confirmation, no refutation. That way, I said, I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate.” She tamps down her emotions, becoming increasingly numb and deadened.
The story meanders through the narrator’s thoughts, advancing steadily, and a deeper picture of the neighborhood, its people, and her plight emerges. Her “maybe-boyfriend” the tag she affixes to the young man she dates, runs into trouble by having part of a British car, the supercharger from the Blower Bentley, in his possession. This, declares a local begrudger, is evidence that “maybe boyfriend” is an informer—which piece of mischief makes him a target of renouncers. The narrator is pilloried for her lofty manner, her “Marie Antoinetteness,” and for her refusal to answer her gossiping accusers—bootless though that would be. On the other hand, people who remain cheerful and outgoing are considered an affront to the prevailing—which is to say, mandatory—pessimism and spleen.
The narrator’s predicament as a woman branded as willful, and therefore resented and reviled, dovetails with the destructive, paralyzing effect of “the great Seventies hatred.” Still, running under her portrayal of a community deformed by grief, fear, suspicion, resentment, intimidation, and “mobhandedness,” is a current of mordant humor that lifts the novel out of utter gloom. It usually manifests itself as a sardonic note, especially in descriptions of bully boys and their unlovely little ways. Sometimes, however, comedy breaks right out into the open as when a PR man from the arts council wanders into the neighborhood with the idea of installing a plaque on a house where a couple of internationally famous dancers once lived. “Standing there amongst the local boys in their masks with their guns,” he explains that it would cheer the place up, attract tourists, and show “that we’re not always just about shooting and bombing.” He is told to leave.
Milkman is not an easy read and, to be honest, the narrative seems, at times, to be awfully slow; yet it pays off. Even the slowness pays off, gradually laying down layers and layers of feeling as incidents accumulate, as the narrator’s circumstances mutate, and as the plot veers off in unexpected directions. In the end, I, at least, felt a certain joy — or, to quote the novel’s last line, “I almost nearly laughed.”