Female Troubles

Milkman: A Novel BY Anna Burns. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 360 pages. $16.

The cover of Milkman: A Novel

Some of the most vivid set pieces in Anna Burns’s darkly comic novel Milkman take place in the ladies’ room, those sites of respite and esprit de corps. In one of these scenes, the narrator finds herself in the bathroom of a popular club. Six women have surrounded her. The women are “paramilitary groupies,” sexual attachments to the nameless Northern Irish city’s “terrorist-renouncers,” and the eddy of local gossip has led them to mistake the narrator for one of their own; for being, like them, aroused by “the sound of breaking glass.” The encircling is an overture of friendship. They offer her lipstick and chewing gum—and then they offer her flattery: “You look like Joan Bennett in that film Woman in the Window,” they tell her. They admire her hair and delight in her cheekbones. We are one-third of the way through the novel and this is the first we are hearing of the narrator’s appearance. But flattery deceives. Evidently practiced in the language of the Hollywood femme fatale, these girlfriends and mistresses tell the narrator what they themselves long to hear, pitching Ida Lupino, Gloria Grahame, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott, Ann Todd, Gene Tierney, Jean Simmons, and Alida Valli as equal likenesses. Being afraid, she lets them—“for no other reason than to buy time.” When the scene concludes, the narrator remains as featureless as she was at the start. We never do learn if her hair is brown or blond, her eyes blue or green.

Milkman withholds other details one might expect in a novel. The place where the narrator lives, the place of the story. The area’s geography unfurls in allusion (“the country ‘over the water,’” “that community ‘over the road’”) and personal idiom (“the ten-minute area,” “the usual place”). There are the “political problems,” but those responsible for the “bombs and guns and death and maiming” are described only as “defenders-of-the-state” or “renouncers-of-the-state” or simply “the state.” The characters, meanwhile, are identified by relationships. To her ten siblings, the narrator is “middle sister”; to her mother she is “middle daughter”; to her “maybe-boyfriend” she is “maybe-girlfriend” (and, later, “almost one year so far maybe-girlfriend”). To her third brother-in-law she is “sister-in-law.” Where relations are more distant, distinguishing behavioral quirks do the identifying. For those who know her “to see but not to speak to,” middle sister is “the girl who walks” or “the one who reads” or “the pale, adamantine, unyielding girl who walks around with the entrenched, boxed-in thinking.” Only celebrities are called by their names in this novel because only celebrities transcend the mesh of relationships that expose whether you have a father or a brother or a son or a husband who is on the right side or the wrong side.

Marilyn Minter, Swarv, 2005, C-print, 50 × 36".
Marilyn Minter, Swarv, 2005, C-print, 50 × 36".

All this withholding stoked the ire of some members of the British press when Milkman was announced the winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize this fall. They called the book “brain-kneading,” “baffling,” and “impenetrable.” They expressed concern for booksellers’ profits. In the Telegraph: “Burns writes in long, stream-of-consciousness paragraphs and there are no names to help the reader navigate or get their bearings.” Pity the critic who cannot distinguish between “first brother-in-law” and “third brother-in-law” because they are not called John and Paul. Let it be said: The book is lucid, its psycho-political setting corresponding in rather obvious ways to Burns’s native Belfast in the late 1970s, ten of thirty years into the violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, also known as the Troubles. (Another euphemism—what a sad, beautiful way to refer to bombs and guns and death and maiming.) Middle sister lives at home with her mother and three precocious “wee sisters” in a working-class and reliably republican district. She has “renouncer-blood credentials” owing to two of her brothers, one of them killed, the other on the run, and although she shares their opinions she does what she can to block them out and establish some semblance of normality—habits that, ironically, render her not normal. The plot turns not on the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, between the IRA and the UDA, but on the tenacious pursuit of middle sister by the title character—believed to be one of the district’s “highranking, prestigious dissidents,” married and forty-one to her eighteen—and on the friction that ensues between her and her community.

Burns’s first novel, No Bones (2001), is also set in Belfast amid the Troubles. Its simple prose and matter-of-fact style center on a young woman’s coming of age but also extend to various members of her family, detailing ways the conflict hijacks everyday life and conjures despair. Milkman, by contrast, tracks a single consciousness. The prose brings into focus feelings more than facts. Facts, in any case, are mostly fungible in middle sister’s “overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.” The tale begins when the milkman (not a milkman by profession) drives up alongside the narrator and offers her a lift in his white van. She declines. Soon after, he shows up again, this time on foot. She is running in the park and, from nowhere, he is running alongside her. Or he is outside her weekly Wednesday-night class. Or he appears at the local shops she’s stopped into, her work, the library. Middle sister experiences the milkman’s “encroachment” as a kind of terrorizing but struggles to describe exactly how he is being abusive toward her and therefore on what grounds she might speak out. She knows of no term to attach to the experience. “Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know.” He never forces himself on her, never touches her, at times hardly looks at her. “Everything had to be physical, had to be intellectually reasonable in order to be comprehensible.”

Free of names and places and time lines, Burns can dispense with the deadfalls of more conventional historical fiction to foreground internal experience, a consciousness reeling amid oppressive conditions and long-term violence, arms out in front, grasping for something solid to lean up against and steady her stance. The prose, its recursive rhythms, its endless deferring, expresses the doubt, the wariness, the shame, the “What’s the point? There’s no point” that consume middle sister as she struggles with no means to describe, no person to tell about the encroachment on her by the milkman. “Was he actually doing anything?” She’s desperate. “Was anything happening? If I didn’t know, how could I explain to and convince anyone else? Instead I sensed that this doubt—of myself, of the situation—would be picked up on and would then lead to comment on my own credibility.” We may never learn how middle sister wears her hair or what her mother calls out when she calls her for tea, but we know the way she holds experience up to the light, turns it, scrutinizes it from all angles, edits the way she describes it without always making that description more precise. There is a relentlessness to the monologues, and even in their more repetitious moments they always express something greater than the words they are made of. This is the reward of the novel.

Absence, in some cases, can be more conspicuous than presence. By withholding certain names and words, Burns directs us to look more closely at the work they do. Words mean more than they mean; names mean more than they name. These are ideas taken up more explicitly in middle sister’s various digressions on the subject. Words like marvelous or smashing or extraordinary belong to the “‘over the water’ language” and are almost never used without “ruffling or embarrassing or frightening.” Certain proper names have been banned, she tells us, because they 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.” There is “the right butter,” she observes, and “the wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal.” Language is alive; it evolves, and context imbues old words with new connotations. But what frightens the narrator is the way language in her community has calcified. An especially unnerving illustration of this takes place when, in middle sister’s French class, the students refuse to acknowledge that the sky is any color other than blue. The teacher marches the students to the window to observe the ongoing sunset, the sky filled with lilac and gold and green and pink. The students respond by turning their backs. They’re so set in their beliefs that they refuse to admit what is patently in front of them.

Words fail in other ways. In another of the novel’s lavatory scenes, this one toward the end of the book, middle sister is again approached in the ladies’ room of a local club. Wannabe militant “Somebody McSomebody,” driven by the misogynous rage that can overwhelm some men when they don’t get what they want, follows middle sister into the bathroom, shoves her up against the wall, and thrusts a gun into her chest. She is saved when other women who have come to use the toilet pile up and beat the offender with their bare hands, their stilettos, their booted feet. The renouncers, believing further punishment is warranted—not for assaulting middle sister, but for “peeking about in women’s toilets”—summon McSomebody to justice in the district’s kangaroo court but are confused about what charge to bring. So they invent a new one: “one-quarter rape.” The accusation is absurd and of course this is the point. Crimes and misdemeanors motivated by the political troubles were hard enough to make sense of; “women’s issues,” which were “baffling, demanding, awful bloody annoying,” even more so.

Easier instead to look away: to refuse to admit what might trouble the fragile boundaries between “their names” and “our names,” “us” and “them,” the “right butter” and the “wrong butter.” The district’s shared but tenuous sense of morality, of the rightness of the people’s actions, depends on these distinctions. Without them, the sky might not be blue but lilac and gold and pink. Women might not be men’s subordinates, their targets and props, but their equals. Lives ended in the name of political duty might be indistinguishable from lives ended, full stop. There is, after all, another word for hero in this—in any—war: murderer.

Sarah Resnick’s writing has appeared in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays anthologies.