'There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were 'our shops' and 'their shops.' Placenames. What school you went to.. There was a person's appearance also, because it was believed you could tell 'their sort from over the road' from 'your sort this side of the road', by the very physical form of a person. There was choice of murals, of traditions, of newspapers, of anthems, of 'special days,' of passport...'
As a young married woman regularly visiting my husband's family in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, I could never wear my gold cross, and once, when I was packing, my husband told me not to take with me a very nice scarf I'd bought for myself, because it was green, yellow and white. Republican colours. Not only would this have annoyed the Unionist friends and relations, but it might have drawn unwelcome hostility in Protestant areas, which was a far worse prospect.
My Presbyterian mother-in-law was deeply disapproving when she found Irish cheddar in our fridge – as for butter, she might have bought Kerrygold if the alternative was no butter at all, but she'd have whipped the wrapper off and put it in the butter dish so it remained anonymous. Living in the middle-class suburb of Castlereagh, she was far removed from the embattled areas ruled by the paramilitaries, yet fear was a very real thing. If the policeman up the road, who taught my husband to drive, got a parcel in the post and didn't know who it was from, he took it down the garden to open it in case it was a bomb (how much good that would have done him, I don't know). If, at my mother-in-law's, there was a knock at the door after dark, there'd be apprehension, though she'd usually relax and say: 'It'll be Willie MacDowell.' That was the milkman, looking for his money.
There is such an ordinary milkman in this novel. 'Real Milkman' is outside the usual politics of the area – though he has been tarred and feathered by the paramilitaries. 'Real Milkman' won't have any part of the war; he sticks up for the underdogs of the Catholic community, rescuing the narrator a couple of times, and it becomes clear, after the Army shoot and wound him, that he's the focus of the erotic longings of half the middle-aged women in the area, including the narrator's mother. The man of the title, however, the probable-paramilitary, is just 'Milkman.' He delivers fear, but no milk.
The narrator (we never know her name or anyone else's) is a young woman; her habit of walking about the streets reading a book alienates her community, not because it's dangerous, but because she's become 'different', pretentious and 'haughty', as her oldest friend tells her. When 'Milkman' begins to stalk her, practically everyone (including her mother) refuses to believe that she's not his mistress. The novel charts her growing isolation, even from her 'almost-boyfriend', who is a boyfriend in any sense (she spends time with him, she spends the night at his house) except for commitment. She walks on shaky ground and 'almost-boyfriend,' though she's attached to him, and terrified by Milkman's threat that he'll put a bomb in his car, is another unstable paving slab.
The situation invades every aspect of her life, like chronic pain: 'Physically, too, it got tiring, all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting.. Just as with the milkman at the end of the day at home when I’d do my checking under the bed, behind the door, in the wardrobe and so on to see if he was in there, or under it, or behind it; checking curtains too, that they were firmly closed, that they weren't concealing him this side of the glass or that side of the glass, I realised things had reached the point where I was now checking to see if the community was concealing itself in those tucked-away places too.'
It's a story about Northern Ireland, or any other place of internecine conflict, but it's also a story about women, about the way they're always blamed, particularly if they don't conform. It did also make me think of the way older Protestant friends of my husband's family used to sit round saying: 'There'd never be all this trouble if they hadn't had the Civil Rights marches; that's what got it all started.' You could connect that to US complaints about Black Lives Matter. Never mind that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland had real, significant grievances, that Protestants as well as Catholics were aware of this and wanted them redressed, and that the resurgence of the IRA was due to attacks on Catholic communities and Catholics living in mixed communities ('Get out or be burned out). If you're an underdog, of whatever denomination, religion, ethnicity or gender, any protest will be seen as 'uppity' or evidence of madness, as the local feminists in 'Milkman' are seen, as the 'haughty' narrator is seen when she parades her unseemly erudition through the streets. As the suffragettes were seen, once upon a time.
That's not to say that Milkman is schematic; it's absolutely not. It's about one young woman, with a strong, compelling voice, and you want to know what becomes of her. Right from the beginning she had me hooked. And in spite of the not-naming of characters, they all walk off the page. It makes one realise that names are, after all, just labels, and it's as easy to call a young man 'almost-boyfriend' as it is to call him Sean. Its brilliance lies in its almost chatty stream of consciousness narrative style; you feel directly addressed by the narrator, confided in, drawn into her world and the repetitiousness demonstrates the ways in which our environments impact on us all - most painfully and bitterly when that environment is a traumatic one. Yet though the narrator is desperately hurt, terrified and beleaguered, she mitigates the darkness of the narrative with humour. The action takes place in '70s Belfast, yet it transcends any single situation, and powerfully demonstrates what long-term conflict does to the human psyche.
There's an episode where the members of a French class the narrator attends get angry because the teacher reads them a description of the sky. 'Why is he complicating things with fancy footwork, when all he needs to say is that the sky is blue?' The teacher gets them to go to the window and look at the sunset sky, which seriously discombobulates the narrator: 'For the first time I saw colours..blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours arriving, all colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue.'
You could take this as a description of the failure of so many of us to notice what's really around us, or as another case of hostility towards cultural preoccupations that seem 'haughty' to the majority, but it also describes the shut-down condition of people who live in fear, in a war situation: 'all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting -'
In the Northern Ireland of that day, ugly armed vehicles patrolled the roads on a regular basis, your bag was searched every time you went into a shop, there were Army checkpoints to search your vehicle. It was a state of guerilla war. Once, walking through apparently peaceful Newcastle with my husband, our young children, and a friend and his young children, we came upon a soldier in combat uniform, crouched behind a suburban hedge with a submachine gun. If you live in such a situation and you want to keep living normally, or pretend you're living normally, the imagination - 'the subversiveness of a sunset' - becomes a traitor, because it opens your eyes and life is only tolerable if you keep them at least half shut. I've seen that in refugees I've encountered, and in my own mother, who in her teens had dealt with multiple traumas from the war and the Nazi period by deciding to feel nothing at all, like the condition of numbness which gradually creeps over the narrator of Milkman.
Her world is more like my mother's experience than the middle-class world I encountered in 70s and 80s Northern Ireland; the community Anna Burns's narrator lives in is run as an almost totalitarian fascist state, with its informers (to the paramilitaries as well as to the police and the army), its deadly kangaroo courts and punishments. It's regularly invaded by the army; once they shoot all the neighbourhood dogs for giving warning when the patrols are coming; they shout sexualised abuse and threats at the women of the neighbourhood, as well as shooting both real Milkman and the eponymous Milkman of the title in the end (not a spoiler, Milkman's death comes in the first line of the novel). They shoot a lot of other people too. 'Before Milkman, they had shot a binman, two busdrivers, a road sweeper, a real milkman who was our milkman, then another person who didn't have any blue-collar or service-industry connections.. Then they played down the mistaken shootings while playing up the intended shooting.' An army media spokesperson talks about 'a job well done.'
If you don't find this believable, read about the recent Ballymurphy inquest, not much reported in a mainland obsessed with Brexit. Ten unarmed people were shot dead there in 1971, including a priest and a mother of eight children. A veteran has testified to the inquest that some of the Army were 'psychopaths' and 'out of control.' One soldier retrieved the skull of one of his victims and used it as an ash tray.
The Belfast Telegraph said recently that anyone participating in power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland ought to have read Milkman.. I read it while spending a week in Northern Ireland. We drove through the suburbs and the centre of the city, and you could tell the Catholic areas from the Protestant areas by the placards for the local elections. The only party that displayed placards everywhere was the Green Party. Other places were neatly divided into Sinn Fein or SDLP (Catholic), DUP or Official Unionist or Alliance (Protestant). There were the Protestant murals, there were the Catholic murals, one from the new IRA, proclaiming THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. The previous week, these boys had 'accidentally' murdered Lyra McKee in Derry.
Yet much has changed since the Good Friday agreement. (It's worrying that mainland politicians seem to think that agreement is past its date stamp and can be ditched, a vexatious block to their desired Brexit.) Northern Ireland has its troubles, but it's no longer at war. This is due to years of dedicated, courageous hard work by a multitude of, ordinary people, church men and women, politicians, skilled and dogged negotiators. That work mustn't be betrayed, lest the warfare return. Milkman is great literature, and it's not just the people who are negotiating power sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should read it, because it tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else.