The Unnameable

Milkman

by Anna Burns
Graywolf, 352 pp., $16.00 (paper)

No Bones

by Anna Burns
Norton, 359 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Magnum Photos
Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1965; photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths

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 imagineso low you’d kill a little helpless friendlyonly 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…


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