Possibly the most challenging one, too.
One of the Booker judges defended “Milkman” by claiming it wasn’t too hard to read compared with reading “articles in the Journal of Philosophy,” which caused book publicists around the world to choke violently. (Three passed out and had to be revived by James Patterson.)
It gets worse.
None of the characters in “Milkman” is named. And the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country, though it appears to be the author’s native Belfast during the 1970s when the Troubles twisted Northern Ireland into a Gordian knot of sectarian murder. Keeping track of the IRA, the INLA, the UVF and the RUC is difficult for anyone not steeped in the bloody turns of that era, but those designations never appear in these pages, nor do any political explanations. Even England is referred to only as “the country ‘over the water.’ ” All of which renders the story intense but dreamlike, full of familiar shapes that remain hauntingly indeterminate.
It’s customary to bury such warnings at the end of a review in the vain hope of inspiring interest before the truth comes out, but I figure, why play coy with such a remarkable novel? Lovers of modernist fiction by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — I know you’re out there, waiting for a book to slake your thirst for something strange and complex — “Milkman” is for you.
It’s also for now. Despite taking place 40 years ago, “Milkman” vibrates with the anxieties of our own era, from terrorism to sexual harassment to the blinding divisions that make reconciliation feel impossible. This is a #MeToo testimony in the context of a civil war, a world in which every element of daily life — newspapers, movies, bars, cars, even butter — is tagged as us or them with potentially deadly consequences. “It was revenge and counter-revenge,” Burns writes, “reeling and spinning,” a society allergic to itself, hypervigilant to the point of madness. In an interview posted by the Booker Prize Foundation, Burns said that “Milkman” was inspired by her own experience: “I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could.”
The whole plot is compressed into the novel’s first sentence, but it’s such an enigmatic declaration that we won’t understand it for more than 300 pages: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
That relentless, indefatigable, tragicomic voice belongs to “middle sister,” an 18-year-old woman who walks the streets of her town reading “Ivanhoe” and other 19th-century novels. “I did not like twentieth-century books,” she explains, “because I did not like the twentieth century.” No one could blame her; her brief encounter with it has been miserable. Her father died after a crushing struggle with depression. She lost siblings to the Troubles. Her mother is “one of the Top Five pious women of the district,” a hectoring, dispiriting force of gloom.
As the novel opens, middle sister is being harassed by a 41-year-old paramilitary officer nicknamed the Milkman. He appears suddenly, like a phantom, stepping out of a wall to walk with her or driving up alongside her to offer a ride, casually indicating that he knows everything about her brothers, her “maybe-boyfriend” and her night studies. “I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me,” middle sister says. “I would be startled by every encounter, except the last, I was to have with this man.”
The milkman is a character of mysterious power amid a vast network of spies, bombmakers and killers. But what makes him so destructive to the narrator’s mental health is that she has no vocabulary with which to resist or even describe what’s happening to her. “At the time, age eighteen,” she says, “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 leveled 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?” What’s worse, her community, even her family, assumes that she’s to blame for enticing the milkman away from his wife. The whole town is engaged in a culturally enforced conspiracy of gaslighting. “All this made sense within the context of our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district,” she writes. “Their creative imaginings would reach my ears slander by gravitational slander.”
The counterweight to that grim predicament is the narrator’s irrepressible wit. This is a young woman who can roll her eyes so forcefully that you almost feel the book lunging to one side. She mocks her town’s insatiable hunger for rumors, its glaring hypocrisy, its toxic sexism. Even in the grips of the milkman’s campaign, she swings out into long comic digressions about the quirky characters around her — from a group of local feminists who are branded “aborting homosexual insurrectionists” to a mad poisoner nicknamed “tablets girl” whose weekly rounds are tolerated like a spot of bad weather.
The narrator’s thick patter, with its long sentences and infrequent paragraph breaks, rings with such a curious sound. It’s as though the intense pressure of this place has compressed the elements of comedy and horror to produce some new alloy. Middle sister dares us to keep up as she talks on and on to prove she’s alive, still sane in this nightmare. That she survives is a miracle. That she perseveres is a function of her indomitable courage. I suspect that’s a fair reflection of her creator, who, having survived the Troubles, is now, at 56, finding an audience around the world.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
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By Anna Burns
Graywolf. 352 pp. Paperback, $16