It was as if the electric lights were turned off, always turned off, even though dusk was over so they should have been turned on yet nobody was turning them on and nobody noticed either, they weren’t on. All this too, seemed normality which meant then, that part of normality here was the constant, unacknowledged struggle to see. I knew even as a child – maybe because I was a child – that this wasn’t really physical; knew the impression of a pall, of some distorted quality to the light had to do with the political problems, with the hurts that had come, the troubles that had built, with the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed willing or able to prevail. The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darkness ran the risk of not outliving it …
Milkman is about, or is at any rate set during, the Irish Troubles, but although this context pervades every moment, every action, every thought and feeling of the novel’s narrator, and although the novel powerfully conveys the trauma and tragedy of living in the midst of this very specific kind of hatred and violence, I ended up thinking that the Troubles are in some ways the least interesting or important aspect of the novel. It seems pretty clear that Burns offers Milkman to us as something besides just a novel about the Troubles, not to diminish them but to lift them out of history and perhaps also out of Ireland, to make sure that we aren’t left with any comfortable sense that the kind of trouble they were about, or that the novel is about, is safely in the past, or only in Ireland.
One obvious strategy–which was irritating and distracting at first but quickly settled into familiarity–is the way Burns avoids naming names. She doesn’t name her characters, so among others we have the narrator herself, known to us only as “middle sister,” and then also “maybe-boyfriend” and “first sister” and “third brother-in-law” and “wee sisters” and “tablet girl” and “real milkman.” Burns also doesn’t name the city, or the country, or the political or religious antagonists; instead we have the “defenders” and the “renouncers” of the state, the paramilitaries, the districts, the faiths. It is easy enough to fill in the specifics for ourselves, but this tactic of not naming lets the significance of the story float beyond them. The novel is intensely and often painfully about England and Ireland, Protestants and Catholics, the police and the IRA, loyalties and threats, reprisals and knee-cappings and ‘kangaroo courts,’ but it is also universal, because what’s at stake in it is hope and innocence and beauty and love. (If that makes the novel sound corny or cliched, it shouldn’t, because it isn’t.)
Another element of the novel that presses us to think about a conflict more abstract than its historically specific one (although of course that in some ways was always about abstractions too) is the emphasis on the narrator’s “reading while walking.” As she makes her way around the city, she focuses not (as far as she can help it) on her immediate surroundings but on her books, preferably 19th-century novels. The first time the ominous Milkman pulls up beside her, for example, she is reading Ivanhoe. The narrator knows that in doing this she is “losing touch in a crucial sense with communal up-to-dateness and that that, indeed, was risky.” She is seeking not so much escape as neutrality: reading is a form of withdrawal, a way of refusing or rejecting the whole otherwise intractable situation around her. This is why her reading while walking provokes what initially seems like a disproportionate amount of criticism. Not taking sides is not an option in her world, where nothing is exempt from partisanship–as she and we realize when maybe-boyfriend, a car enthusiast, gleefully shows off his acquisition of a bit of a dismantled Bentley only to be confronted about whether he also got “the bit with the flag on it.”
The narrator’s “longest friend” explains the problem:
It’s the way you do it – reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea beside you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lucubrations. It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusional. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation. . . . They don’t like it.
There may be ways, I suppose, in which hostility to this version of the life of the mind makes literal sense in Milkman’s historically specific context, with its connotations of economic elitism and political disengagement as well as its withdrawal into an anti-social form of privacy. It seemed to me, though, that Burns is also using the narrator’s reading and the opposition to it metaphorically in ways that the narrator herself suggests when she responds to her friend by demanding “Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” The alternatives stand for two very different ways of being in the world. There are lots of possible ways to unpack the opposition encapsulated by Semtex on the one hand and Jane Eyre on the other: one way that I don’t think fits is to say that the novel pits art against politics, but it certainly does question whether artistic and imaginative freedom can flourish in an atmosphere of repression and terror, however putatively noble the aims.
The opposition there is also a gendered one, and this is another way that Milkman felt universal (or at least mobile) as well as historically specific. Its central plot is only ambiguously about the actual politics of the Troubles, but it is very clearly a plot about sexual predation and sexual politics. I found the way the narrator loses control of her own story particularly chilling: her frustration that the Milkman’s interest in her negates her own agency, her fear and confusion at his insistent pursuit, her struggle to limit its ramifications, the seeming impossibility of even identifying him as a threat when, as she repeatedly complains, anything short of a physical attack will not be legible to anyone else as the danger she knows it to be. His hints about car bombs connect this story directly to a particular place and time, but her decision not to go running alone anymore is one most women who run can immediately relate to.
There’s a lot else going on in Milkman, but the last thing I’ll talk about here is the narrator herself. I think she’s another device that keeps the novel from being read as a straightforward historical novel. In some respects she is a typical first-person narrator, by which I mean the narration is in her voice and thus reflects her character and her perspective. Her narration was quite immersive, though the circuitous structure sometimes made it hard to follow (it could reasonably be described as stream of consciousness). But as my earlier quotation from her friend shows, her voice has qualities that, to me anyway, seem also to remove it from middle sister, or at least to make it clear that we are not getting an “authentic” version of her voice and story but a highly and deliberately artificial one. “Lucubrations”? Really? Who says that? Surely not her childhood friend who’s just chatting with her in the bar. Again, there are probably ways to make literal sense of this: the story is clearly told after the fact, though we don’t know how much after or much about what has happened in between the Milkman saga and the telling of it. Perhaps the hyper-articulate language signals the narrator’s development into someone who has joined exactly the literary world that her friend deplores. (This would be the “growing into the novelist” effect we get in many other first-person novels, such as Great Expectations or David Copperfield.) We don’t know who middle sister has become, though, so for me this seemingly uncharacteristic diction gave an air of unreality to the story that, again, kept me thinking about else it is about.
I found Milkman really engrossing. I can see why it got talked about as difficult, but I don’t think it is, really, once you get used to the nomenclature–and provided you pay close enough attention that you arrive back in the moment with middle sister after she has gone off on one of her circular excursions about who people are or what has led up to current events. The tension about what exactly Milkman is up to and what the consequences will be makes the novel gripping, but I thought overall it was as melancholy as it was suspenseful: every aspect of the narrator’s world is infected by the violence around her, and there’s an overwhelming sense of loss and waste and futility. While the Irish Troubles are the immediate focus–the occasion for the novel’s evocation of this “human darkness”–they are not the only time and place to have seen such trouble. In this way, the novel seemed to me to be about what Dorothea in Middlemarch rather hyperbolically calls “all the troubles of all people on the face of the earth.”