Middle sister runs in the park. She runs along its reservoirs, trying to ignore the surveillance-camera shutters clicking in the bushes. In a city split by sectarian violence, it’s the only route available. Traveling through some of its neighborhoods can be fatal.
Anna Burns’s Milkman is the story of this young woman growing up in an unnamed place that looks and sounds like Northern Ireland in the 1970s, a place of surreal cruelty and denial so steadfast it amounts to magical thinking. The book dissects what the alloy of nationalism, survivalism, and vengeance does to a society, and how it can mold the psyches of its members. The narrator is known alternately as “middle sister,” “maybe-girlfriend,” “the girl who walks,” and “longest friend.” The other characters are also identified by epithet—“third-brother-in-law,” “nuclear boy,” “Somebody McSomebody”—like a Greek epic poem or a code-named dossier.
One day, while middle sister is out walking and reading Ivanhoe, a menacing figure known as “the milkman”—“one of our high-ranking, prestigious dissidents,” a middle-aged (and married) member of the paramilitary—offers her a ride. She does not accept. “I didn’t know whose milkman he was,” she explains. “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him. He didn’t ever deliver milk. Also, he didn’t drive a milk lorry. Instead he drove cars, different cars, often flash cars, though he himself was not flashy…. Then there was that van—small, white, nondescript, shapeshifting.”
The milkman’s offer marks the beginning of two campaigns: He begins stalking middle sister, and the community begins to nurture a false rumor that they are involved in an affair, for which they blame the young woman. Middle sister’s coping strategy is avoidance. To refute the rumor would be to implicate herself, so she feigns ignorance with her mother, sisters, and neighbors. “I minimalised, withheld, subverted thinking, dropped all interaction surplus to requirement which meant they got no public content, no symbolic content, no full-bodiedness, no bloodedness, no passion of the moment, no turn of plot, no sad shade, no angry shade, no panicked shade, no location of anything…. Just me, devoid.”
The milkman continues to appear, like a wraith, portended by his white van. He never looks into middle sister’s eyes; he never touches her. But he does threaten her, even suggesting he will car-bomb her “maybe-boyfriend.” Under such threats, middle sister begins to fall apart, emotionally at first but then also physically, when she’s poisoned by “tablets girl,” the neighborhood’s compulsive poisoner. She goes to maybe-boyfriend’s house to break up, only to discover he and his best friend are in love.
That night, when the milkman’s white van appears, she gets in. “There was no choice. It was that there was no more alternative,” she tells us. “Ill-equipped I’d been to take in what everybody else from the outset easily had taken in: I was Milkman’s fait accompli all along.” Driving her to her home, the milkman leaves her at the door with instructions to meet him the following evening and to wear “not trousers. Something lovely. Some feminine, womanly, elegant, nice dress.” The meeting never happens: A day later, he’s killed by the state outside the park.
Burns’s novel has been described as “experimental,” “baffling,” and “challenging,” none of which quite describe this singular, hypnotic novel. It tugs you like an undertow into the rhythms of its narrator’s mind. No bit of outside language punctures her idiom: an adamant, stilted version of the colonizer’s tongue, an English so ridiculously formal and oblique that encountering it feels like staring at a Cubist painting.
The result is an uncanny narrative, one that is dreamlike and claustrophobic, hovering just above history. You see the Troubles through the eyes of someone who would rather not see them herself. “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the [1970s],” Burns told The Guardian. “I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions. I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”
The violence is, by middle sister’s dictum, ignored, but it can’t be entirely blocked out; it echoes in the story like an animal yowling far away. Burns achieves this through the horrifying, darkly funny asides her narrator rattles off like stones from a slingshot: “the ground here consisting of bombed-up concrete”; “lots of cats, then, years ago, dead”; “you could buy a balaclava anywhere”; “black-eyed, multi-bruised people walking about with missing digits who most certainly had those digits only the day before.”
When they finally break through, memories of violence are cataclysmic. A cat’s decapitated head reminds middle sister of the night nine years ago when British soldiers killed nearly all the neighborhood dogs and left them piled in a “giant heap,” an “enormity of corpses,” a “slimy, pelty mass,” and the memory floods back in sickening detail: “The throats were cut so deeply towards the bone that it looked to our eyes as if the heads were missing. This explanation seemed easier on the mind…that the heads should still be there than that they should be missing, than that the soldiers had taken them to make fun of them, to kick them, to prolong the dishonouring of them.”
Middle sister, however, rarely notices the soldiers; the community’s self-policing occupies her attention far more. She is urged to give up her habit of reading while walking, first by the milkman, then by her family and her oldest friend. “It’s creepy, perverse, obstinately determined…. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation,” the friend says. “Calls attention to itself and why—with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together—would anyone want to call attention to themselves here?” Middle sister doesn’t explain. Earlier, she ponders that “always my thinking was at its best, its most flowering, whenever I was walking,” but flowering thoughts seem laughably inessential during a siege.
In this sense, Milkman is a book about what happens when something—a person, a cause, or a community—demands your entire soul, and demands it not from a position of power but from the desperate edge of survival.
The Troubles have been going on for most of middle sister’s life; the fear and violence and paranoia, the sorting of people into enemies and informants and allies, hang over her like a haze. Two of her brothers were “renouncers-of-the-state”; one has died, and the other is on the run. Middle sister is being stalked and harassed by a man that the community, she is told, can’t do without; implicit is the idea that the community could survive without her. Middle sister’s anguish comes, in part, from wanting her community to treat her as someone worthy of protection when, by its rules, this requires surrendering a part of herself.
At its core, this is a feeling that those who have experienced sexual violence or the threat of it know well: the awareness that some people—apparently good people—won’t choose to protect you because the circumstances aren’t right. There are ways to move forward, but they require either losing faith in others or destroying a part of yourself that had, in more favorable times, seemed essential.
When middle sister reflects on everyday harassment by soldiers—in a third-person- subjunctive reverie that reads as a confession—she muses that a rational person might want their harasser dead. They might think: “[If] a renouncer-sniper from some upstairs window takes your head off now with a rifle-shot, soldier, not only would your passing not chagrin me, I think it would be a pleasant, mentally relieving, charming, karmic thing.” She also knows she’s not the only who feels such rage: She remembers seeing a “very ordinary” person from the other side of town on TV, calling for the death of every person in her neighborhood and then observing: “It’s amazing the feelings that are in you.”
Violence, Burns tells us, doesn’t transport the soul past the point of no return; the horror and wonder is that you have to return, again and again. Life goes on. When the state kills the milkman—after shooting a garbage man, two bus drivers, a road sweeper, the real milkman, and another man, all of whom were mistaken for the paramilitary leader—middle sister rejoices, but silently. “My body was proclaiming, ‘Halleluiah! He’s dead. Thank fuck halleluiah!’” Horrifying, transcendent feelings. Amazing, to see what they cost.