The milkman delivers

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(c) Faber & Faber

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Milkman, the novel written by Belfast author Anna Burns that won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction late last year, might more accurately be called Milkmen because it has two characters bearing that name.

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One is a 41-year-old married man and a member of a paramilitary organisation.  We don’t learn why he’s nicknamed ‘milkman’, but it’s a moniker that inspires fear.  He starts making unwelcome intrusions into the life of the book’s 18-year-old female narrator.  One day he stops alongside her in his van and offers her a ride while she’s walking on the street – or more accurately, walking and reading, for when she’s out and about she invariably has a book open in her hand.  (It’s normally a book from the 19th century or earlier because, as she makes clear, she’s not a fan of modern times.)  “You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you?” he says.  “So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he?  Your brothers, thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy, used to play in the hurley team, didn’t they?  Hop in.  I’ll give you a lift.”  Disconcerted by his knowledge of her and her family, the narrator declines the offer. 

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Then he appears and jogs alongside her while she’s taking a typically strenuous run through her city’s ‘parks & reservoirs’ area.  “He slowed the run right down…” she observes, “until we were walking…  He had no interest in running.  All that running along the reservoirs where I had not ever seen him running had never been about running.  All that running, I knew, was about me.”  Spooked, she resolves afterwards to run in the company of a male relative, ‘third brother-in-law’, who’s temperamental (“a mad exerciser, a mad street fighter, a basic all-round mad person”) but dependable, in the hope that his presence will keep the milkman away.

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And then he surprises her after an eventful evening downtown.  She’s just attended an adult French class whose teacher is less interested in teaching the students French than in teaching them that the sky contains more than one colour, blue, by making them properly watch the sunset for the first time: “My poor deprived class… the sky that seems to be out there can be any colour that there is.”  Then, on her way home, she discovers the head of a cat that’s been blown off by a bomb explosion, decides to take it somewhere where she can bury it and wraps it in handkerchiefs.  Standing up with this grisly burden, she discovers the milkman beside her: “Now he was inches from me, and I from him, with only those hankies, and their dark, dead contents, acting as a buffer in between.”

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Though he doesn’t attempt to molest or even touch her, and he doesn’t proposition her, the milkman has clearly taken an uncommon interest in her.  And the narrator, we have realised by now, is somewhat uncommon herself.       

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The milkman’s unwelcome and sinister attention has severe consequences.  The narrator inhabits a community that sees itself as under siege by the state, that doesn’t recognise the state’s army, police, courts or hospitals,  and that allows itself to be administered by the ‘renouncers of the state’, i.e. the paramilitaries of whom the milkman is a member.  The result is an isolated society of neurosis and paranoia, whose members are continually at pains to say and be seen to do the right thing at the right time, and not to say or be seen to do the wrong thing at the wrong time; to know who they’re talking to and who’s listening to them; to sense what other people are thinking and keep their own thoughts to themselves; to keep up appearances, go with the flow, not draw attention to themselves, and so on.  In this pressure cooker of a place, gossip spreads as quickly as bush-fire through tinder-dry Outback, and when the narrator and the milkman are spotted together tongues start wagging madly. 

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The fragile equilibrium that exists between the narrator – already seen as something of an oddball – and her relatives and neighbours is shattered as her supposed affair with the middle-aged, married and murderous milkman provokes disgust, scorn, fear and envy.  Her outraged mother – ‘ma’ – lectures her: “You’ll regret it, daughter, finding yourself ensnared in the underbelly of all that alluring, mind-altering, unruly paramilitary nightlife.  It’s not what it seems.  It’s on the run.  It’s war.  It’s killing people.  It’s being killed…  I’m telling you, it’ll end badly.  You’ll hit the ground with a bump if he doesn’t take you to death first with him.”   

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Ironically, it’s the book’s second milkman, a real one whose job is to deliver milk, who helps turn things around.  Not only is he unafraid to stand up to the renouncers when he thinks they’re in the wrong, but he tries to extend help and comfort to members of the community who need it – often those who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict between the forces and renouncers of the state.  (With the narrator, his good deed is to take the cat’s head off her hands and give it a decent burial himself.)  Ironically, the real milkman’s compassion goes unrecognised and unappreciated by the community as a whole who, in contradiction of his kindly nature, have nicknamed him ‘the man who doesn’t love anybody’.  He does, however, prove to be the catalyst that finally helps repair things between the narrator and her family.  Though not before he’s involved in a case of mistaken identity by the state forces who’re out to assassinate the other milkman.

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(c) The Irish Times

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As you’ll gather from the above synopsis, Milkman is an eccentric book.  However, from the moment that it secured the 2018 Man Booker Prize, ‘difficult’ is the word that people have been levelling at it.  London’s Evening Standard acclaimed it as ‘a fine and remarkably original literary achievement’, but then quietly damned it in the next breath by asking, “…how many who buy it will read all the way through?”  Even Kwame Anthony Appiah, head of 2018’s Man Booker judges, sounded slightly apologetic about giving it the prize: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard.”  Well, I can only reply with an un-literary ‘bollocks to that’.  I didn’t find Milkman pretentious or unduly challenging.  Far from it. 

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Eyebrows have been raised by Anna Burns’ Kafka-esque policy of not giving anyone or anything in the book a proper name or label.  But it’s obviously set in Belfast during the 1970s period of the Troubles – Burns grew up in the North Belfast district of Ardoyne – and the various factions prowling around are obviously the IRA, the British Army, the RUC, etc.  Meanwhile, the fact that none of the characters have proper names, and are referred to instead by simple family-appellations, like ma, second brother-in-law and wee sisters, or by capitalised and un-capitalised nicknames, like chef, Somebody McSomebody and Mr and Mrs International, doesn’t impede the reader’s comprehension or enjoyment at all.  (I assume that by not attaching proper names, Burns is satirising the extreme care with which folk in Northern Ireland during the Troubles took in choosing and announcing names – names that sounded too Protestant or too Catholic could get you into trouble in the wrong place and / or among the wrong people.)

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What might also be off-putting to potential readers is the book being, essentially, 350 pages of internal monologue.  External events are filtered heavily through the thought processes of the central character.  But the narrational voice describing the bizarre goings-on, protocols, customs and rituals that the political circumstances have engendered in the neighbourhood is consistently droll and frequently hilarious.  It’s particularly (if blackly) funny when talking about the misfits that the situation has inevitably produced.  Certain folk have lost their marbles or become recklessly anarchic, so that ‘normal’ members of the community call them the ‘beyond-the-pale’ people – like tablets girl, a sad and deranged soul who wanders around slipping poisons into people’s drinks; and nuclear boy, a youth convinced that Armageddon is coming courtesy of a war between the USA and USSR; and the issues women, a septet of ladies who hold regular meetings in a garden shed and who, to the local paramilitaries’ discomfort, have resolved to impose a feminist solution on the conflict. 

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I’ll admit there were occasional patches where the narrational voice got a little too introspective and I had to apply some willpower to get through a few pages.  Not that the main character is dull, but in terms of being interesting, she can’t compete with the details of the weird landscape around her.

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The humour is what I liked most about Milkman.  It’s a novel about the Northern Irish Troubles that manages to be funny, something that can’t be said of other novels about the subject that I’ve read over the years, such as Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983) or Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man (1994).  From the period I spent living there, I’ve always remembered Northern Ireland as a very humorous place, even if the humour was often a defence mechanism against the horrors that were occurring at the same time.  And I also liked Milkman because, despite the ordeal it puts its heroine through, it’s ultimately an optimistic and transcendental work.  As the wildly-philosophical French teacher implores: “Implement a choice…  Come out from those places.  You never know… the moment of the fulcrum, the pivot, the turnaround, the instant when the meaning of it all will appear.”  Perhaps it does appear, fleetingly, at the end.

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