A Prize Winning Novel that Divides its Critics

Book Review by Rebecca Pelan of the Man-Booker Prize-winning novel.

Anna Burns: Milkman, Faber and Faber, London, 2018
RRP: $29.99

When reading this year’s winner of The Man Booker Prize, Anna Burns’s Milkman, I had to confess a reluctant agreement with one of my past students who, in reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, admitted to having skipped substantial sections of the lengthy, philosophical discussions contained in the novel, on the basis that they added nothing to the narrative or to her enjoyment of the story, and which, she felt, represented a good example of poor editing. Milkman has divided literary critics, exemplified by these two selected review excerpts: Claire Kilroy sees it as a ‘Creepy Invention at [the] Heart of an Original, Funny Novel’ (Guardian, 31 May 2018), whilst James Marriott sees it is a ‘difficult book’ of ‘wilfully inelegant prose’ that reveals the judges’ choice as all that is wrong with literary fiction these days (Sunday Times, 19 October 2018). I’ll come clean now and confess to being in the latter camp. Having worked in the field of Irish women’s writing, from North and South, for the last thirty-odd years, I am puzzled as to why the novel won such a prestigious literary prize, given that the setting is so well-trod, the content is often repetitive and, in my view, conservative, and the book, overall, is in desperate need of a good edit. There is very little in the novel that is new or not already done (sometimes better) by Northern women writers in the 1980s and 1990s: in fiction, Jennifer Johnston, Frances Molloy, Mary Beckett, Linda Anderson, and in drama, Christina Reid, Marie Jones, and Anne Devlin, to name just a few. In Milkman, it’s all now in one book: the complex relationship between the Troubles and gender, political satire, allegory, surrealism, and stream-of-consciousness, though I think it tries to pack in a little too much of it all. There is certainly a level of experimentalism in terms of the narrative structure, which has brought comparisons with Swift, Sterne and Beckett, though, for me, this is something of a comparison too far.

Milkman is set in an unidentified place (assumed to be the Ardoyne area of North Belfast as a result of geo-political allusions), at a time of the Troubles (1970s), and narrated by an unnamed eighteen-year-old woman, known only as ‘middle sister’, who goes to great lengths to avoid any engagement with anything other than classic literature, which she reads while walking – a behaviour that is considered ‘not natural’ and ‘unnerving’ even by friends (200). Ironically, her efforts to remain unnoticed and unengaged with everything around her relating to the Troubles, her family, or contemporary life in general, only works to attract attention. On one of her ‘walking while reading’ outings, she is approached by a man (Milkman), aged in his forties, whom she doesn’t know, but who seems to know much about her, and who offers her a lift. She declines, but he reappears and, ultimately, wears her down by planting seeds of uncertainty and paranoia as well as threatening to blow up her ‘maybe boyfriend’, a decent guy whose main interest in life is cars. Being groomed by an older man in the political setting of the Troubles becomes a very different and much more threatening experience than usual, since the common identification of toxic masculinity is infused, in this case, with the sexualised importance of the local, IRA/activist identity of ‘Milkman’, especially in the eyes of the ‘paramilitary groupies’ who express a preference for ‘a tough guy’:

            She looked at her cleavage. Seemed pleased. Adjusted it. Re-adjusted it. Seemed more pleased. “A dangerous man. Masculine. Very. Has to be. Love that sort of thing.’     […..] It’s like you have to get into training for it, have to stay motivated for it’ which was when I learned what motivation, in paramilitary groupie terms, meant. ‘Let him know how much he means to you,’ they said. ‘Look good. Look classy. Always dresses. No trousers. High heels, mind – and jewellery. Never let him down. Never go to the bar yourself. Never get on the dancefloor with another fella or find yourself alone with a guy on the edge of flirtation. Never consider another relationship, not even a maybe-relationship. Honour him. Do him proud. Don’t be loud. Don’t spill beans and don’t ask questions. Appreciate,’ they said and on they went instructing, because I came to realise this was what it was, instructing. With these women, in these toilets, I was being handed the hangers-on welcome pack. (126)

In general, central female protagonists in Northern women’s fiction are always more likely to be either directly involved with politics of a sectarian kind or, alternatively, involved in avoiding politics of any kind. Milkman contains the avoidance model, but takes it to a whole new level, so that, initially at least, it is difficult to identify precisely who or what the narrator is trying to avoid: the interrogations and intrusions of her family or the political circus around her. Ultimately, she is merely a pawn in all their worlds. Arguably, the entire novel is about the avoidance of naming, both in terms of characters and politics: ‘middle sister’, ‘maybe boyfriend’, ‘Somebody McSomebody’, ‘third brother-in-law’, ‘over the water’ (England), ‘over the road’ (the Unionist community).

In 1991, in Culture and Politics in Northern Ireland 1960-1990 (Open University Press), Eamonn Hughes argued that the thriller had been the major response to Northern Ireland on the part of its novelists (6), though he should have specified male novelists, for while the genre has done well out of Northern Ireland, it is almost exclusively one produced by men. Similarly, also in 1991, Bill Rolston (in The Media and Northern Ireland, Macmillan) argued that, within popular novels such as the thriller, women are generally confined within a limited set of stereotypical roles in a plot that surrounds an individual (masculine) Republican ‘villain’ whose impetus for action arises not out of an organized collective politics, but out of “personal need or psychological inadequacy” (42).

  … what is needed is no more than an adventure playground in which ‘heroes’ can confront ‘villains’. At its most mechanical the thriller moves to a closure which projects its locale as a closed but always unresolved system: the Cold War can never end, the forces of corruption can never be defeated, and the problems of Northern Ireland will inevitably endure. (Hughes 6)

For me, this is the most disconcerting aspect of Milkman– the fact that, even after all these years, and an impressive body of excellent and interrogative fiction, written by Northern women, we have a novel that so comfortably fits not only the genre of thriller, albeit from a woman’s perspective, but sits so easily in Rolston’s definition of Northern Ireland as an inevitably enduring site of sectarianism. If the novel had appeared in the 1990s and been considered worthy of literary awards, it might well have seemed very fitting, given that here is a narrative that plays around with names, naming, identity, ‘us’ and ‘them’ so cleverly, and most cleverly of all because the static and intransigent nature of the Troubles in the North are examined from inside the mind of a vulnerable woman. But it’s 2018, and much of the literature coming out of the North has well and truly moved on from this, as has the place itself and its politics. The bigger question, for me, remains one related to literary prizes, and a system of awarding/rewarding that can be so seemingly out of touch: thirty-odd years of solid work by many Northern women writers can go virtually unnoticed, and here we have a novel – good enough in its own way – that covers very little that’s new, either in content or style, and is awarded one of the biggest literary prizes in existence. More worryingly, is the perpetuation of an outmoded view of a region and its population that struggles daily to shake-off the shackles of its horrendous past. I can’t even bring myself to address the critical comments that suggest humour in Milkman– I’m still searching to find those.

Rebecca Pelan

Rebecca is a Literary Studies academic who grew up in Northern Ireland, and wrote her Ph.D. about women’s literature of the Troubles.