Before reading Milkman, Derry Girls was my only real reference point for the troubles in Northern Ireland. And while The Cranberries, hot priests and kissing protestants make for one eye wateringly funny channel four drama, Milkman gives a very different perspective on the realities of being a teenager in Northern Ireland. A tale of division, repression and inaction, Milkman is narrated by middle sister. Between looking after wee sisters, reading eighteenth century literature and taking trips across town to see maybe boyfriend, she does everything in her power to ignore what’s going on around her. That is until Milkman appears. His unwelcome interest in middle sister consumes her - and the community. Rumours persistent and despite her best efforts, so does Milkman. Anna Burns’ writing lends itself to this chaotic backdrop with middle sister’s every thought, anxiety and observation laid bare. Her internal monologue is as erratic as it is rich, adding to the highs and lows of her story as she tries to escape both Milkman’s grasp and the community’s constant judgement and surveillance. Although taking stream of consciousness to the extreme, this style allows Burns to fully explore the distortions that manifest themselves in oppressive communities. Rumours spiral into god-given truths, toy soldiers play army generals and gossip circles become witch hunts. Burns’ novel exposes how military regimes lean on violence when necessary, but more successfully exact control through exposing civilian weaknesses and inciting fear, obedience and silence from the ground up.
Milkman by Anna Burns. Faber and Faber, 2018.