Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

9780571342730The acquisition of a major literary award can lead to a novel’s death by glib appreciations and burial by half-hearted comparisons. The worth of the text, savoured by pre-prize patrons, can be displaced by its new-found public honour. Successfully reading a ‘prize-winning’ novel means that we need to hear its own voice, isolate it from the acclaim of the press, and interact with it on its own terms. The fact that this balancing act must now be inaugurated around a novel written from and about Northern Ireland is surely a point for great celebration.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is a masterful literary screenshot of 1970s Belfast, the Troubles at their height, communities locked in to a conflict which will come to define the city and the territory for a generation to follow. The Troubles are rich ground for writing, particularly given their shared legacy and continued currency for the whole Northern Ireland community. It is surely a sign of the times that novels handling the issues of the conflict are landing in the bracket of ‘historical fiction’, a moment to be looked back on and assessed with the coolness of distance, with the privilege of framework. This also carries inherent dangers – that of romanticism, or entrenched triumphalism, or a neat formalism which puts the old binaries into a new binary of past and present. Burns’ great skill in Milkman is to avoid every one of these dangers, producing a novel which is coherent, disconcertingly present, and marvellously human.

At least part of that achievement is tied in with the style of the text. The incessant internal monologue of a mind set alight by the suspicions of others, the claustrophobic perimeter of the District, the uneasy balance of personal identity and political boundaries combine to give the reader a sense of the conflict. Beyond this, however, are the linguistic choices that Burns appears to have made in putting the narrative together. Milkman maps the territory of the Troubles not in geographical terms (the North is never directly mentioned) nor even in personal terms (characters are labelled as in a morality play) but in true psychological terms. The external realities of renouncers of the state, of foreign intervention, or imprisonment, even of murder are placed to the periphery of the novel, with the emphasis landing on the first person singular. The harassment of a young woman by the unwanted sexual advances of a middle-aged paramilitary predator arguably outweighs the wider issues for which the Troubles have come to be known – and that feels exactly right in a novel which takes the heart and mind seriously.

This is the novel that Northern Ireland needs, one where the long sacrificed preoccupations of the individual, that have too often been subsumed by the concerns of the tribe, are given their voice; one where the tools of analysis are turned not on the ‘events’ of the Troubles but on the internal lives of real people living day by day. Anna Burns has figured a map for the outsider, not based on the tessellated lines of conflict in a murderous city, but one which traces the contours of the Northern Irish psyche, which articulates the hardwired emotional issues which no ‘bomb and bullet’ drama could ever unfold. There are moments in the novel which are unspeakably powerful, with the author laying bare the nerves of needs and emotional realities which are psychologically deep and true. Milkman is a deeply penetrative work, eschewing the easy tropes of gunmen and alleyways in favour of the more sinister shadow of community oppression and fear. It is very much a novel of the twenty-first century, with the issues of sexual politics, sexuality, and personal survival in the midst of larger political machinery.

From a spiritual point of view it is fascinating that religion, conscience, and redemption do not feature prominently in the novel at all. Burns’ concern in renaming the world of her novel, of anonymising the city, might be in play here, a deft decommissioning of the immediate causes and consequences of the real Troubles which the novel riffs off. Arguably, however, this denies the novel an opportunity to probe some of the dangers of political ideology married to religious dogma, or conversely the capacity for light to break in darkness. The denouement of the novel (no spoilers) does hit redemptive notes, but this is a deliverance wrought within the human psyche rather than on the heart. One would not expect a secular novel to embody spiritual deliverance, but the world in which Dostoyevsky could conclude a text containing murder and moral equivocation with a copy of the New Testament gracing his main protagonist has now passed. If we are to be saved, it will be through familial intervention, or merely personal resolution, or good luck in the midst of a bad luck world. The main character’s devoutly intercessory mother might be a comfortable and comedic figure in the text, but if prayers are fulfilled in Milkman it will not be God who does the answering.