Early on in Milkman, the Man Booker Prize–winning novel by Anna Burns, the narrator (called only “middle sister”) recalls watching Rear Window for the first time. Most of the novel sticks to events that occurred when middle sister was eighteen, as she takes us back to sometime in the late 1970s, in some part of Republican-area Belfast. But her encounter with Rear Window comes from slightly earlier, when she was about twelve:
A little dog gets killed, strangled, neck broken, which is not the message of the film but for me was the message of the film because its owner—bereft, in shock—wails out her window over all the apartment building, “Which one of you did it?…couldn’t imagine…so low you’d kill a little helpless friendly…only thing in this whole neighbourhood who liked anybody. Did you kill him because he liked you, just because he liked you?”
And twelve-year-old middle sister knows that is indeed exactly why it happened. The need of a whole neighborhood to murder affection—even a dog’s affection—makes perfect sense to her. It is self-defense. She lives “in a statelet immersed long-term on the physical and energetic planes in the dark mental energies; conditioned too, through years of personal and communal suffering, personal and communal history, to be overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger.” In this environment, unforced affection (and charity, hope, and love) is out of place, and therefore threatening. The only one of the biblical virtues to stand its ground is faith, and it does so grimly. Even light struggles, so that the lack of trust among people is answered by a physical pall:
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 this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see.
The struggle to see, and to make sense of what is seen, lies at the heart of Milkman, and it is a struggle we get to experience as readers. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the chair of the Booker Prize panel of judges, described the experience of reading it as “challenging”—like climbing a mountain, but “worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.” In fact the challenge of the book is that Burns continually withholds vantage points or—to continue the mountain-climbing metaphor—orienteering devices from us, including the most basic device of naming. Everyone in this nameless part of a nameless city in a nameless year exists only in terms of their relationship to someone else. Middle sister is in a maybe-relationship with “maybe-boyfriend”; she goes running with “third brother-in-law”; she talks to “longest friend” and reads bedtime stories to “wee sisters.” These general appellations are markers of safety in a community where the last thing anyone wants is to be singled out. The closer anyone gets to a proper name the more dangerous it is, even if it’s only a nickname: “nuclear boy,” who has killed himself because of his obsession with impending nuclear war (clearly a victim of “Americo-Russo atomic bomb displacement condition,” given the war on his doorstep); “the man who didn’t love anybody,” also known as “real milkman,” who takes a stand against the local paramilitaries, also known as “renouncers-of-the-state”; the “women with issues” (i.e., feminists).
Best of all the nicknames is “Somebody McSomebody,” who likes to pretend he is Somebody in the paramilitaries. Up until the time he assaults middle sister in the ladies’ restroom of the local club, McSomebody provides opportunities for Burns to skewer the character of the bullying male bore, desperate to impress. First he tries out “stalk-talk,” which is mostly violent, and requires referring to himself in the first person plural. (“You started this. You made us look at you…. You don’t know what we’re capable of and when you least expect it…you’ll pay back for…”) And then he has a go at hard-man bravado. It doesn’t work:
“We can have an off day,” he said, “with that off day spelling our last day. The average man, you know, even the average renouncer,” he shrugged, “can’t, when it comes to it, always manage that. We get a little enervated, a little nervous”—and here he said my name, my first name, forename—“because just beforehand,” he went on, “we have this feeling that we’re living our last hours and that there are three options—we’ll live, we’ll die, we’ll be injured, we’ll fail, the state will catch us,” which was five options. I decided not to cut in to correct, for that would encourage him on.
In this city of no names it is all right to be one of “the Johns and the Marys”—people trying to live civilian lives—because the Johns and the Marys by definition are not identifiable as individuals. In effect, proper names, and even the first person singular, have lost their function in middle sister’s world because ordinary civilian life, insofar as it is achievable at all, is a life in hiding—at its most extreme, a life without a self.
And that is middle sister’s problem—she needs a strategy for how to be, but to remain invisible, and for how to find her way around in the dark, but without seeing. The strategy she has hit on is “reading while walking.” As you can tell from her weary encounter with McSomebody, middle sister is smart—a joyfully funny and intelligent guide to her own community and her entrapment inside it. She is addicted to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction—so addicted that she reads as she walks to and from work, to her French class, to her dates with maybe-boyfriend. Initially she appears to be that familiar, if old-fashioned, figure of the middle-class girl teen trying out her identification with Elinor, Marianne, Dorothea, Natasha, Elizabeth, or Jane. Her obsession with novels offers the reader a welcome respite from the disorientations of her everyday life. Books exist, ordinarily, in a world of proper names, and these names from the world of fiction seem to promise us a purchase in middle sister’s world. We encounter not only Rear Window but also The Brothers Karamazov, Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, and Madame Bovary. But the relief is shortlived. Middle sister is not reaching for fiction as a form of self-discovery but precisely the opposite—she reads in order to “stop having a view.”
Her reading, which as she moves on to Montesquieu, Marlowe, and Chaucer becomes more and more advanced for an eighteen-year-old girl who works in an office, is as much a protection against knowledge as a route into it. It is a way of “blanking out,” or keeping your mind closed to the world around you: “This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise. This was underneath the trauma and the darkness a normality trying to happen.” There are lots of ways of going about normality in middle sister’s neighborhood, but they all involve manufacturing preoccupation—obsession with exercise, obsession with cars and hoarding car-parts, obsession with the threat of nuclear war, obsession with churchgoing. “In those days then, impossible it was not to be closed-up because closed-upness was everywhere.” What hope for an affectionate dog in such a place?
The problem of perspective has long been a challenge for writing about the Troubles. Do you stick with a first-person narrative, risking the danger of remaining caught within one of the two warring sides? Do you try narrative switching (say, between Protestant and Catholic friends, as Robert McLiam Wilson does in his 1996 novel Eureka Street)? Do you construct an ambitious, multi-perspectival, truth-and-reconciliation-type panorama, as in Owen McCafferty’s post-ceasefire play Scenes from the Big Picture (2003)? Or do you rely on the outsider?
It is not at all surprising that crime fiction and thrillers have flourished in the North in recent years. In a murky atmosphere distorted by intercommunal violence and political corruption, the exercise of moral authority and truth-telling, or at least truth-discovering, must be handed to the nonaligned detective, the forensic scientist, or the journalist. These figures can cross borders, such as the peace walls built to separate the two communities on sectarian lines, and so map the city and its surroundings for the reader. Anna Burns gives us no such guide to help us through the murk. She has written a novel in which knowledge is too dangerous to risk, and therefore the idea of a future to which knowledge might lead us, or any straightforward idea of a plot—all the usual building blocks of fiction—won’t do.
The book that kept coming to mind while I was reading Milkman was Seamus Deane’s powerful 1996 novel, Reading in the Dark, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Deane’s narrator (also unnamed) is, like middle sister, a teenage reader in a large family that has obscure ties to the Republican movement. Let us call him middle brother. Middle brother is growing up in Derry and, like middle sister, he is persecuted by a half-understood history of violence and intimidation. His response is to become an investigator of his own family’s secrets, and although he learns that the truth most definitely does not set you free, the novel’s plot is constructed around that search for truth. Burns’s genius lies in entirely renouncing the classic truth-discovery plot. Detective work—even at its most Miss Marple, most feminine and unassuming—is completely unavailable to middle sister.
The first reason for this is that while Deane’s novel was set in the late 1950s and 1960s, ending with the deployment of British troops in 1969, Burns sets her novel a decade later, amid a wholesale breakdown of civil society. It is not simply that the population of Northern Ireland is divided into us and them, “our side of the road” and “their side of the road,” but that the entire urban landscape has been eroded by violence and the threat of violence, whether directed against loyalist paramilitaries, against the state, or internally in feuds among armed Republicans. There is no way of mapping this city, as Burns shows brilliantly by naming the space between her neighborhood and the city center “the ten-minute area.” A significant scene in the novel takes place in the ten-minute area, but it is nonetheless a blank, a missing part of the landscape, given shape only by the time it takes to cross it.
But the primary reason for middle sister’s powerlessness is that she is a girl. Burns insists on the intimate relationship between political violence and sexual violence, one nourishing and feeding off the other. A neighborhood under paramilitary control is one in which women are “befouled” despite their best efforts to protect themselves. The stalker’s victim has no comeback. It is a case of “what females could say and what they could never say,” what they could do and what they could never do.
Middle sister’s troubles start when she is noticed by Milkman—a proper name that is not a proper name, in that it’s not so much a nickname as an understatement of the power this local paramilitary wields in the community. Milkman starts tailing middle sister as she walks and runs around her neighborhood while reading, and almost immediately rumors begin to circulate that she is in a relationship with this man, who is middle-aged, and married, and a murderer. She quickly finds herself under surveillance not only by Milkman, who is a far more frightening and effective stalker than Somebody McSomebody, but also by the state (cameras click behind bushes as she passes), and by her entire community. And she is powerless to do anything about it. She is trapped in indirection. Not only is there nobody to tell, but “there was still my lack of certainty as to whether or not there was anything to tell. That was the way it worked…. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors.”
These constant hints and symbolisms are one source of the novel’s macabre comedy. There were times reading Milkman when I thought I would get a cramp from laughing, but it is hard to do justice to the book’s humor in a review because much of it comes from the sheer length of characters’ speeches and of grown-up middle sister’s own free-wheeling, digressive, retrospective narration. Everybody is continually searching for another way of saying something. Since the real is so hard to name, we continually teeter on the edge of the surreal. Take middle sister’s mother, for example—a truly superb depiction of a harried woman trying to maintain control in an environment that is beyond control. Hearing the rumors about middle sister and Milkman, ma objects not to the murderer bit, and not even to the middle-aged bit, but to the married bit. She lectures her daughter on the Sixth Commandment:
If I really felt I had to cleave to a renouncer, could I not officially have gotten myself married to him? That way I’d be accepted. “Though goodness knows,” she said, “being the wife can’t be easy in itself. All those prison visits. The tombstone visits. The being spied upon by the enemy police, by the soldiers, by fellow renouncer-wives and renouncer-comrades of the husband. Indeed the whole community would be at it,” she said. “Making sure of her fidelity.”
Most of ma’s homilies go on for pages, and the joy of them is the number of arguments she can come up with without naming anything directly (“the tombstone visits”). Later she hears a rumor that middle sister is pregnant:
“In the name of God!” she cried. “Are they correct? Is everybody correct? Have you been fecundated by him, by that renouncer, that ‘top of wanted list’ clever man, the false milkman?” “What?” I said, for it had been singular, that word she’d used and genuinely for a moment I had not a clue what she meant by it. “Imbued by him?” she elaborated. “Engendered in. Breeded in. Fertilised, vexed, embarrassed, sprinkled, caused to feel regret, wished not to have happened—dear God, child, do I have to spell it out?”…Next came abortions and I had to guess them also, from “vermifuge, pennyroyal, Satan’s apple, premature expulsion, being failed in the course of coming into being” with any doubt dispelled by, “Well, daughter, you can’t disappoint me any more than you’ve already disappointed me, so tell me—what did you procure and which of them drab aunts did you procure it of?”
What’s exhilarating about reading ma is that, although we know she would not use words such as “vermifuge,” by heaping “vermifuge” on top of “do I have to spell it out?,” Burns gets us right on board with the shock and disapproval, even while we are laughing. Its very implausibility gives us a breathless sense of her desperation. Ma is a three-way spirit: a caricature (anyone’s Northern Irish Catholic ma), an explosion of language, and a woman utterly herself.
Because of the amount of energy expended in avoiding naming things, middle sister’s world is an exhausting place to live. Increasingly cornered by the sinister Milkman, and increasingly the subject of gossip, she tries to deflect the community’s interest in her by turning herself into a blank, “an inert, vapid person,” another missing bit of the landscape. Her predicament, that of victims of abuse and violence everywhere, is that she begins to lose the sense of self she has been trying to protect by retreating from the world. In the face of other people’s distrust and the “push-pull” of suspicion, she finds herself unraveling: “Thus my feelings stopped expressing. Then they stopped existing…. I, too, came to find me inaccessible.” Burns writes with fearful intensity of the insidious effects of male abuse of power and control, as middle sister is rendered helpless, unable to explain what is happening to her, and—even if she could explain—unable to get anyone to listen.
The novel is carried by the extraordinary dynamism of middle sister’s voice, full of syntactically vertiginous constructions and new coinages such as “numbance” (for what happens to you when you are threatened sexually) or “earbashings” (of McSomebody’s verbal onslaughts). But all this verbal energy is a consequence of living in a time and a place that lacks a language of feeling. The word “sorry,” for example, “nobody yet knew here how to say.” Ditto “shame”: “I didn’t know shame. I mean as a word, because as a word, it hadn’t yet entered the communal vocabulary. Certainly I knew the feeling of shame and I knew everyone around me knew that feeling as well.” Burns writes of the 1970s as a time before psychology, before even the idea of emotional damage or psychological trauma. Almost, she implies, a time before people were prepared to count the human cost of violence. That is, there is a good deal of counting in the novel, as numbers of girlfriends, guns, body parts, and dead sons are tallied up. Middle sister’s neighborhood is addicted to bizarre reckonings (can ma date again if she’s had “only one son dead and a husband, no daughters”?), but it is a form of accounting that makes people substitutable for one another. After all, Burns implies, this is a time before individuals, when people are given to talking in the first person plural.
Yet as she keeps reminding us with little interjections—“not yet,” “not here,” “not then”—grown-up middle sister writes from a post-therapy world. By switching back and forth between something resembling an eighteenth-century language of fiction (not yet fixed into standard grammar) and a twenty-first century therapeutic language of self-expression, she seems to be asking us to consider the question: What could be the appropriate vocabulary for feeling in the face of such violence? But actually her take on language is more radical than that. Without an appropriate language in which to express their feelings, her characters can’t really feel. Emotions such as shame or sorrow (or fear, pity, and compassion) have to wait until there are words for them. Like Eliot, Burns’s people have “had the experience but missed the meaning.”
Milkman is Burns’s third novel, and in all of them she takes a backward look into the past of the Troubles. In No Bones (2001), her first book, she is explicit about it, dating her series of linked short stories to a succession of historical moments. We begin on “Thursday, 1969,” when Amelia is in primary school and violence erupts. She gets through the August riots, when Catholics were burned out of their homes, by hiding under the table and playing a game with her sister of guessing “what’s been blown up.” We end with “A Peace Process, 1994,” when Amelia and her surviving school-friends try a disastrous, and hilarious, day out to Rathlin Island. They are all reformed alcoholics and they have all been mutilated by the Troubles, bearing everything from kneecapping wounds to the more invisible scars from long incarceration in prisons and psychiatric wards.
No Bones is a struggle to read, not because it is not well written, but because it insists that we look in detail at the violent horrors of the years between 1969 and 1994. Everything—from sixteen-year-old Rab McCormick killing himself in a game of Russian roulette because he wanted to “matter,” to thirteen-year-old Mary Dolan wheeling her rotting, premature dead baby (the result of her father’s attentions) in a toy pram, to Amelia’s eating disorder, her rape, and many many murders and attempted murders—is recounted in the same deadpan ever-so-slightly-ironic tone. The barrier between fiction and history is so thin in No Bones that the book feels dangerous for the reader. I returned to it after each break in reading with reluctance, but not to read on was worse, because it meant ignoring the fates of Amelia and her friends, in the way they had been ignored as children.
And the novel is not without a sense of hope. It is not, as it is not in Milkman, that any of this horror can be redeemed. Burns does not believe that awful experiences make you stronger; nor does she have any time for a religious view of suffering. But in all three of her novels, she does suggest that what lies in the future for the trapped victims of the Troubles is a way of thinking about feeling. Like the truth, the language of psychology does not set you free, but it may give you resources.
Two thirds of the way through No Bones, Amelia moves to London. It is the late 1980s, and after a couple of years she has a breakdown. The breakdown itself is described exquisitely. She is in a shop in Camden Town and cannot decide between buying tins of baked beans or a family-size box of Special K. Back and forth between the shelves she goes, frozen in panic, and all the time eyed by a security guard “who hadn’t been trained in breakdowns, particularly on how to notice the little things that triggered the bigger things off.” She becomes paralyzed on the street outside, unable to tell whether she is in London or back in Belfast surrounded by the dead of her childhood; she holds on to the metal grill fitted against the shop window to keep herself from falling. I have gone back to that chapter several times, and each time I have found myself weeping.
Amelia eventually enters treatment, and No Bones plots the growth of the language of psychology alongside the development of the peace process—that language ironized as much as availed of. In Little Constructions (2007), Burns’s second novel, therapy-speak is one of the tools of the chatty narrator, as she keeps trying to get the reader on her side. “If we’re going to be mentally healthy, you and me, and have days of authenticity going on between us, you’ll need to know…,” for example. Or, speaking of the matter of advice-giving:
The great thing since the discovery of Recovery is not to be seen to be giving it. It’s no longer appropriate to interrupt people while they’re listing their problems and say, “You should” or “If I were you,” or “If I was you.” Apparently if you do this, you show yourself up as ignorant, anxious, controlling and old-fashioned. Only in the old days did people behave like that. However, none of us likes to be told we can’t interfere and organise another person’s life for them, no matter how evolved into psychological modernity we are. Even whilst standing back with our calm bodies and our meditative breaths.
It is true that the narrator’s odd grammatical interest in whether one would say “was” or “were” cuts across the familiar Sunday supplement style, and asks us to sit up. Nonetheless, the tone is so utterly out of place in the unfolding tale of murder, torture, mutilation, and rape (“I use the term ‘rape’ loosely because, technically, he didn’t rape her. Someone else had raped her. But he did physically beat her after dragging her on to the wasteground. This put her very much into that old memory of invasion and annihilation”) that we are forced to ask, what kind of tone would be in place? The question is not just how can pain like this be expressed, but how can healthy talk about rape keep you safe from harm?
Milkman dispenses with the history and geography that anchor us in No Bones and with the knowing narrator of Little Constructions. Instead our guide to the insidious violence inflicted on a young woman who likes reading old books is an older version of herself, who is well versed in what passes for today’s language of feeling. It is like triangulation—we get to pinpoint more precisely, but not because any one perspective is more valuable than another. And in the end it may not be point of view that counts so much as attitude. Toward the end of the novel, middle sister herself gets to try out a bit of Milkmanish surveillance, Rear Window–style, on maybe-boyfriend and his friend Chef. There is something disturbing about the voyeurism of this tender scene between two young men. But middle sister does not judge, and she does not intervene. She simply reads the scene in front of her, and decides that maybe maybe-boyfriend’s name should change, to ex-maybe-boyfriend. The generosity of her interpretation contrasts sharply with the power dynamics at play in the novel’s scenes of male surveillance. Middle sister’s reading is about understanding relationships between people at ground level, rather than drinking in the view from the top of the mountain.
In the end, the message of hope the novel offers lies in the fact that middle sister survives, and survives with her inventiveness and generosity intact. Recovery means being able to tell the story in all its varied vocabularies, so it depends, quite literally, on reading. But it also depends, explicitly for Burns, on being able to write from the other side of violence. All three of her novels are written from a post-ceasefire perspective; her narrators have been saved, in part, by the Good Friday Agreement. It is impossible to read Milkman without a sense of incredulity that anyone might be thinking of endangering that.