Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize and 2019 National Book Critics Award for Fiction, Anna Burns’ Milkman follows the story of an eighteen-year old unnamed narrator, exploring what her life is like in a community living under oppression and divided by conflict.
Even though Anna Burns did not specify where and when the novel is set, one could easily surmise that it took place in Northern Ireland in 1970s during the height of The Troubles. In fact, Burns’ novel is devoid of any specific details or proper nouns. The eighteen-year old unnamed narrator is referred to as “Middle Sister”; her younger sisters are “wee sisters”; her potential lover is “maybe-boyfriend”; communities and countries are known as community “over the border” or country “over the water”. By choosing not to give any names or specifics, Burns depicts a fractured community stripped of their identity. The political conflict and tension force people to put each other into categories— “us” against “them”—which then leads to the depersonalization of violence. Any digression from what is considered “normal” is an act of rebellion. For instance, when Middle Sister takes the habit of reading while walking, the community placed her under the category of “beyond-the-pales”.
Bombings and shootings are considered mundane by the community where Middle Sister lives. Everyone sees and hears about these kinds of horrendous acts that they become part of the daily gossip, desensitizing people to them. Even though Milkman is an exaggeration of a besieged and conflicted community, one could easily compare it to current times. Reminiscent of the today’s social climate specifically dealing with sexism and violence towards women, Milkman deftly examines how these acts—regardless of physical contact or not—psychologically and physically affects a woman.
In the book, Middle Sister becomes the target of stalking and sexual harassment by a paramilitary potentate known as “Milkman” who took an interest in her. As Middle Sister contemplates while being stalked at and harassed by Milkman, “At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.” As the novel progresses, Milkman relentlessly pursued Middle Sister—as she observes—to the point of feeling that she has been “thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.”
Milkman’s triumph lies in the voice of its narrator, Middle Sister. It is fresh, original, witty, funny, and satirical without losing the seriousness and urgency that the story is trying to convey. The narration is dense with long sentences that takes a bit of settling into; but, don’t let this dissuade you into reading it. Once you’ve gotten used to it, you will find that the book is incredibly absorbing and engaging.
At its core, Anna Burns’ Milkman is about the importance of freedom and one’s personal identity—how easily both can be stripped off by a person or an outside force inciting fear. In a society rife with violence and separated by political conflict, survival means being aware and not losing sight of one’s humanity, even if it means being one of “beyond-the-pales”. Milkman deserves all the acclaim it received.