Book Review: MILKMAN, an unusually but thoroughly rewarding novel

burns, anna - milkman (2)Milkman
Anna Burns

In Milkman, Middle Sister, a Northern Irish teenager during the Troubles, has a maybe-boyfriend she has hidden from her widowed mother to protect him (and her) from her mother’s haranguing about marriage and children. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of Milkman, a married, high-ranking paramilitary. Rumors of their (non-existent) affair, started by her vindictive First Brother-in-Law, become fact after they are repeated enough within the community. Milkman subtly suggests that Maybe-Boyfriend’s life might be in danger. Meanwhile, Maybe-Boyfriend is the subject of rumors in his own neighborhood. He is a mechanic and car lover, and his shop received a non-working Bently. The guys dismantled it and drew for parts. One of his neighbors suggested he might be disloyal for having part of a car from “over the water.”

As Milkman steps up his pursuit of Middle Sister, her sense of helplessness is palpable, especially given his power in the community. Because his machinations are subtle, she doesn’t even always trust herself that he is doing something wrong. Later, another stalker puts a gun to her chest. That’s a clear violation and her Third Brother-in-Law promises to beat him up, but the damage is the same in both cases, perhaps even worse in the former.

The book vividly depicts, though doesn’t belabor, living in a community under siege and being caught between the rules of the state and the paramilitaries that controlled the community. I recently read Say Nothing, and I was glad to have a little context for the conflict and the vocabulary of the Troubles.

Middle Sister is also caught in the expectations of her family and her religion with strict gender roles. Even though Middle Sister is slightly more analytical than others, she still is horrified that her maybe-boyfriend enjoys cooking and looking at sunsets.

I must have picked up the book at exactly the right time for me because I adored reading it. I thought it was very funny at times–Middle Sister hates the Twentieth Century so only reads things written before 1899 and is distrusted because she reads while walking. Mostly, though, it was very sad to see Middle Sister caught up in forces entirely outside her control for reasons entirely out of her own making, which is probably how many in Northern Ireland felt during the Troubles.

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