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"Milkman" by Anna Burns

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The first person protagonist of Milkman, an eighteen year-old girl, attends a French class of an evening. Her world threatens her with ostracization, because of certain harmless habits she displays, and also threatens her with bodily harm, and even death. For she lives in fraught times in a fraught place, a place sitting always on the precipice of deadly violence - Belfast in the 1970s.

The instructor in this French class, purportedly inculcating a foreign language to her students, asks them what color the sky is. The assured answer from all assembled, is “blue.” After questioning this answer, and after more opposition from her students, she directs all to turn to the windows and look at the sunset. There, she names a whole series of colors: orange, yellow, red, white - there’s no blue to be seen. At page 90 of the Graywolf Preprint Edition:

What if we accept these points of light, their translucence, their brightness; what if we let ourselves enjoy this, stop fearing it, get used to it; what if we take hope and forgo our ancient heritage and instead, and infused, begin to entrain with it, with ourselves then to radiate it; what if we do that, get educated up to that, and then, just like that, the light goes off or is snatched away?

Such is the hopeless outlook in this remarkable novel; such is the hopeless outlook of the time and place. 

Throughout Milkman, the nameless first-person protagonist feels the need to back up breathlessly to fill in the points leading up to the current hellish situation. She feels she must make and remake points already established, all in an effort to explain how perverse and inside-out her world is. This unique book - unique enough to win the 2018 Man Booker Prize - has little description of its physical setting, It compensates for the lack with a minute exploration of the emotional landscape.

At page 114:

In those days then, impossible it was not to be closed-up because closed-upness was everywhere: closings in our community, closings in their community, the state here closed, the government “over there” closed, the newspapers and radio and television closed because no information could be forthcoming that wouldn’t be perceived by at least one party to be a distortion of the truth. When it got down to it, although people spoke of ordinariness, there wasn’t really ordinariness because moderation itself had spun out of control … in those dark days, which were the extreme of days, if we hadn’t had the renouncers [of the state] as our underground buffer between us and this overwhelming and combined enemy, who else, in all the world, would we have had?

Nowhere are they clearer, the ground rules under which our heroine operates. A chief paramilitary figure, whom the state clearly views as a dangerous terrorist, accosts her in a non-violent way, threatening to do harm unto death of a boy she’s sort of seeing. He knows a frightening amount about her habitual comings and goings, and sidles up to her often enough while she’s out walking or jogging to convince the entire district that they are lovers. While in fact, he never actually touches her.

Other threats and illuminations occur to our plucky girl, easy to anticipate but still unwelcome; physical damage, too, is her lot, but nothing lethal, thank goodness. 

Milkman emerges as a book-length exposition of how a young woman navigates the very real threats to her sanity and her existence. A wry humor, found throughout, acknowledges the struggle amid the arch and ossified posturings of the political parties - in very much in the manner of, “See? All this I have to put up with.” Here is a sample, the last line of Chapter 4 (p. 213) of the gallows humor which our narrator uses to survive: she speaks of the final resting place of a friend from early in her childhood, whose funeral occurs a few months after that of her newlywed husband: “… also known as ‘the no-town cemetery,’ or ‘the no-time cemetery,’ ‘the busy cemetery,’ or just simply, the usual place.”

Along with the cynicism and the barely repressed violence, this book displays its author’s largesse when considering human nature: the dangers of groupthink receive full play, as do the consequences of virulent gossip, and the vicissitudes of finding a mate. This is a rich dose of literature: full of humanity under stress, and the flowering of hope. For a true take on human nature, approached with humor and kindness, pick up Milkman.





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1 comment

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