Anna Burns is an author from Northern Ireland. She has written three novels out of which Milkman has been awarded the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2019 Orwell Prize for political fiction, and the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award. The name of her other two novels are No Bones and Little Constructions.
The opening sentence of the book gives a highlight to the brilliant and direct inner voice of the narrator of Milkman. The narrator is an eighteen-year-old girl who has been born and brought up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Her neighborhood and family are under constant monitoring and run by the State.
The people are affiliated with republican paramilitary forces and there is mortal and existential destruction all around. However, the girl does not care about these things. She has lived in a violent and tribal world and she wants to continue with things as usual. There are political and sectarian divisions shown in the novel but are not referred to directly.
They are referred to as right religion, wrong religion, defenders, renouncers, our side of the road, other side of the road, over the border and over the water. The ruthless acts committed by both sides of the conflict set the atmosphere of the novel but it is not glorified or described lavishly. This can be called the deliberate and wise choice done by the author.
Milkman instead looks at the weird suppression of tribalism including forceful implementation of patriarchal control, exaggeration of sects and elevation of strongmen in the society as the true subject matter. The unnamed narrator shines in this realistic and weird satire as it completely departs from its original theme and is voiced unconventionally.
The narrator does not clarify her status with her Maybe Boyfriend and is interested in 19th-century novels as she calls the 20th century a failed experiment in modernism. She is disinterested in the palace and time where bad things happen to those who are left behind and disassociates herself with purity.
She has a sense of independence and non-attachment which attracts the attention of the milkman who is a married man and has a high rank in paramilitary forces. The milkman has a very creepy presence throughout the novel and he always appears unannounced accompanied by his platoon and has complete knowledge of everybody’s associations and actions.
Despite the narrator rejecting the milkman and despite his not putting a finger on the narrator the milkman has made her his as far the neighborhood gossipers are concerned. The narrator’s family quickly jumps to the conclusion that she has become his and cannot get married to a normal and boring man of her religion and age.
The reader can relate to the powerlessness of this wonderfully voiced narrator of her own story. The story moves randomly towards the crossroads of realism and absurdity to show us who we are. The town has much more than the killer, conspirators and crooks which meets the eye. The novel is set in a nameless Irish city which might be Belfast as the era is not confirmed when the novel has been written.
The city is caught in the conflicts rising between British Army, Renouncers and IRA which makes the readers guess that the novel is set in the 1970s. The unnamed narrator comments and observes her neighborhood. She is stalked by a Milkman and she keeps on denying it but her mother does not believe in the fact that whatever she is saying is true and there is no truth to the rumors being circulated.
Milkman is a novel where readers feel connected to the narrator and go on a journey with her to understand what she thinks and feel. There are many portions in the novel where a single paragraph has been repeated in many places. The reader might find it very repetitive to read the same thing again and again but that is not the case. The same repeated paragraph finds relevance every time we read it on different pages.
One of the best qualities of the novel is the fluidity of the prose form which feels a little digressive at times when incidents are observed and reported dispassionately and there are times when neighbourhood events and gossips are written as they are in a detached manner without going into a detailed analysis which is a very feminine quality of the writer.
Milkman is a commentary that many women want in their lives. The novel highlights those nuances which are kept out of public spaces for women as they are called chatter. The novelist cleverly portrays a girl who keeps on reading while walking and can also observe everything around her while doing so.
There are many instances of violence in the book as the novelist grew up in Ireland which was surrounded by violence. There is a very horrific scene where dogs are butchered and left in a pile. The novel has a Beckettian feel to it. The profound effect that Milkman had on its readers was that it was relevant to the MeToo movement as the novel was completed in 2014 before the movement began.
It also has a powerful impact as it shows the silences which many women are trained to have since childhood. Many women across all the cultures are conditioned socially to keep tier opinions and views to themselves and confine to what is expected from them. Their word can be dismissed easily when it involves a creepy old man who becomes a stalker and is from the IRA.
The young narrator in that case is cornered badly and everyone including her mother disbelieves her that false rumours are being spread about her and the milkman. Anna Burns also makes use of the internal monologue style of writing in most of the novel to convey the innermost thoughts and feelings of the girl to the reader which gives away all kind of pretences that the girl would have adopted in real life.
There are many portions of the novel which will be logical to women readers and will also be reasonable to the male readers. Idra Novey, a novelist has written in her Paris Review Essay, The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature that it is silence that plays an important role in literature. The silence is spread all over but is still gets hidden from naked eyes.
Although the story written by Flannery O’Connor was published sixty years back the similar abuse of power is similar to the testimonies which have been written in the past years. O’Connor writes about what the Bible salesman do or does not do to Hulga in the barn. This description brings out the shrieking silence that the girl will now have to hide from the world and will return to this horrid experience in the loneliness of her mind.
This kind of women silencing is something that has been hidden very quietly from the public view and this view has been majorly defined by the patriarchal rules and regulations. Although, these types of conversations, ideas and thoughts have been expressed in literature freely and are familiar to all the women across the world but the present book puts a very powerful impact on readers.
The narrator of the Milkman completely alienates herself from her neighbours and family and sits alone when the novel opens. She is someone who is in the 20th century but loves the 19th century. She hates modernism and its impact on the people. She is not named in the story. This is a novel where we see that none of the characters has been named which makes the novel all the more interesting and readable.
We also come to know about a maybe-boyfriend of the narrator who offers her rides, consoles her when needed and does everything that a boyfriend would do for his partner. However, the relation between them is not underlined by the narrator which makes it all the more confusing that who is this guy and what exactly is he doing in the novel.
The novel is told from a feminist point of view and in a detached manner. The narrator seems to be a little careless about her surroundings and continues her journey even when she is stalked by a milkman who is a man of prestige. She tries to pacify her mother that there is nothing between her and the milkman but her mother does not listen to her and goes by what the neighbours have to say about her.
The novel highlights how the voice of the women has been suppressed from the ages. Even after passing of so many centuries, we observe that women even today are not treated equivalent to men in some areas and places. They are considered to be inferior and their opinion does not matter at all. Milkman is a complex novel that can prove to be a very interesting read when you understand the main crux of the novel.