by Anna Burns
The phrase, “girl coming of age in a war-zone,” does not appear on Milkman’s book jacket. Too catchy. Too wry. Too glib. A Man Booker Prize winner, Anna Burns’ novel resists such efforts to sum it up in a few words. Many reviewers reach instead for the high concepts and political/feminist issues at stake. Others admire the fluid narration, both gritty and buoyant. Milkman is set in a war zone. It is a coming-of-age story full of awakenings in the face of the crimes of history with their malingering cult of violence. But that’s the least of what it is.
In an anonymous district, where neighbors are known not by their names but by their associations, a rumor arises. Middle Sister figures in the gossip of the local pious women (including her mother) when First Brother-In-Law spreads a story of her involvement with Milkman, a prominent paramilitary. When every sprawling household has suffered losses, where every Ma is bereaved and every neighbor mistrusted, Burns brings out a resonant story of many layers.
While speaking to the crushing realities of generations scarred by forces greater than themselves, Milkman never dwells on the graphic, the wrenching, the obscene. Middle Sister knows the gory details but will not let herself know. She sees only what she cannot help seeing. These extremes hover on the periphery of Burns’ novel, descended from the greats of 20th century Irish literature and drama. It can be no accident that the litterateurs whose classroom affords a glimpse of sunset to Middle Sister’s French class have vacated it to attend J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
Burns makes use of her rich literary heritage. The misdirected energies, disappointed dreams, and wrong spouses that surround Middle Sister walk from the pages of decades of modern Irish writers and poets. Young love is thwarted, babies come too soon. There’s the poison of drink, too, and over everything looms the church, domineering despite its increasing irrelevance.
Milkman shows that the root of political malice is absolutism, of knowing exactly what is right, exactly what will happen, and exactly what consequences ensue from breaking ranks. This message resounds in current Western discourse. There is a word of warning here and an insight into the ripple effects felt by generations to come who will live with what we do today. But, as so many have noted, not without joy. With the hope of a human spirit bowed but unbroken, Milkman is a triumph.
Reviewed, 28 January 2022