In an unnamed city, where two communities live in conflict with each other, where there is a right and a wrong kind of butter, just as there is a right and a wrong kind of the same religion, every misstep, however small or accidental, can be damning. Middle sister, the eighteen year old narrator of Anna Burns’ Milkman, learns this lesson the hard and dangerous way. Wanting to escape the troublesome twentieth century, she keeps her nose stuck in a book at all times, especially when walking. This habit of hers not only raises the eyebrows of the neighbours but also the unwanted attention of the Milkman. The Milkman is no milkman at all, never has he delivered a bottle of milk. He is an influential figure of the paramilitary, with people and weapons at his command and fear working in his favour. When he stops his white van next to middle sister and offers her a lift, even rejecting and walk-reading (or read-walking) on cannot save her from the inevitable social downfall. Of course she was seen. Of course this brief encounter, imposed on her, turns into an affair with an older, married paramilitary man in the eyes and ears of the community. The Milkman wears her down, not only with the unwanted sexual attention, but with indirect threats of murdering her boyfriend should she continue to see him. We see her change all her habits, take new routes to class, quit running and distance herself from her family and friends.
Even though the whole “affair” only involves a couple of encounters, the creepy presence of the Milkman is everywhere in this book. The tense atmosphere is the most outstanding achievement of this novel, that makes it plain to see how dangerous rumours and deliberate silence can be. But overall a book that started out promising left me dissatisfied. Sentences run on for paragraphs, paragraphs grow over pages and while that can create a beautifully fluent ocean of words, in this case I couldn’t figure out why. Perhaps it was to create a stream of consciousness like representation of the young woman’s mind and worries, but whatever the intended effect all it did to me was to create a tiring reading experience. That was not helped by the habit of jumping central plot points. Small details where explored over pages and then, just as I was expecting the big plot development to release all the tension a small jump in time or shift of focus dissolved all hopes for resolution into nothingness. Maybe the lack of plot, while plot was being promised, was a tool to show how the rumours and communal policing where the true protagonist of the novel – there was little plot, because nothing actually happened between middle sister and Milkman. And yet, cleverly as it might have been constructed, the vagueness and digressing nature of the narrative made appreciating this investigation of the Northern Ireland conflict challenging.