‘Milkman’ makes you recognize Anna Burns’ capability as a writer; she is blessed with a unique authorial voice. Past that, you delve into the story that takes you round and round in a loop. Yes, it is a Booker Prize winner of 2018; the flattering reason for me to have picked this book.
Now the author is either too explorative about the language or the scary situation in Northern Ireland restricts her from naming her characters; even christening fictitious names would have probably put her in a soup.
Is Milkman horrific? Do you cringe at every turn of the page on how this stalker behaves with a naïve eighteen-year-old protagonist? No, rather the author keeps getting on to your nerve with details around the girl’s maybe-boyfriend, her third brother-in-law, her mother, a tablet’s girl and a real milkman while the stalker ‘Milkman’ is on the sidelines. In this chaotic world of no names, your brain needs to remember the positions given to each character. Nothing against this unique idea but then you end up reading something that is abstract and full of incoherent lines needing consistently your interpretation and perspective.
Milkman is a forty-year-old man, stalking the unnamed protagonist. Milkman is an unusual name for a stalker but why do we have such stereotype for names. If there could be a ‘Weaver, Hunter, Roper ….’ and the list goes on for a page then why can’t a stalker be ‘Milkman’ in a book where no one gets a name.
The girl is happy to be working, reading her book while walking, refusing to let her mother know what is happening in her life. And, all this while the mother is perturbed with the rumours of her daughter’s alleged affair with this older ‘Milkman’, recognized as an anti-state element. Despite the premise of nosy neighbours who have made a mountain out of a molehill of the girl-Milkman relationship, they are unaware of this girl living with her may-be boyfriend on weekends. This is incomprehensible to me.
There is a political disturbance in the background but ofcourse, you are looming in no date or person reference turf. I had to Google to know that the setting is in Belfast in 1970s at the height of political disturbance in Northern Ireland. ‘So this was hatred. It was great hatred, the great Seventies hatred.’ Yes, you do your homework before reading about the tensions in Europe which never makes it to the headlines. Anna Burns refuses to serve that part of the history on a platter. It is about, ‘our side of the road’ and such vague references filling the atmosphere.
The protagonist is living in the paramilitary area, policed by them who had the reputation of being highly partisan. According to the police, her community was a rogue community treated as civilian terrorists, sympathisers of the renouncers. Everything exists in a grey area, you do not get anecdotes of what or how things worked. There are references to dogs and cats killed by the two fighting factions/ armies. We get gross citations to the protagonist walking through the barred ‘ten-minute area’ holding on to a dead cat’s head bombed by Nazis. Does it change anything? Perhaps, this is Anna Burns’ intention, to show us the mirror on where we stand in our society. ‘What’s the point, nothing is of use, it’s not gonna make any difference is it?’
Now equipped with the background, you restart the reading. The sad part is that I felt I had a much terrible stalker experience growing up in Delhi. You didn’t need political unrest to shudder with shame while traveling on public buses or walking on the roads (and strictly not reading in public areas). Again setting aside my discontent, I began. And, still was not in love with this ‘privileged’ character.
There is also a prior experience of ‘Somebody McSomebody’ who stalked the protagonist. The background of Somebody McSomebody who had the family of two parents and twelve siblings is then reduced to a psychologically debilitated mother, a sister and the three-year-old boy. The protagonist questions if this could justify the stalking and threats given to her.
I must say the initial few pages had a big empathetic hold on me with the protagonist’s experience with the Milkman and her brother-in-law. You relate to her saying, ‘where did he come from? or laying off rumours on, ‘I dismissed it without considering it. Intense nosiness about everybody had always existed in the area.’ The gossip-mongering society pestering the protagonist with ‘So-and-so said’. ‘And anyway, a proper girl, a normal girl, a girl with morals intact and sensibility attuned to what’s civilized and respectful, would get the hell out of there, wouldn’t even have got in there.’
The girl’s mother was worried about her not been married since the age of sixteen. The mother is a poor widow and while her husband was alive, there was hardly any visible emotional connect. Now, she is further tormented by her son’s death and another one being on the run, elder daughter in tumultuous married life, another banished by renouncers and one having an illicit relation with the Milkman. The writing is beautiful as Anna Burns mentions, Ofcourse at that time they weren’t called depressions. They were ‘moods’. People got ‘moods’. They were ‘moody’.
In ‘Milkman’, you do not follow a story, rather a few characters and some disjointed happenings of their lives. It is just a world with characters who loom on the grey areas and some in really dark area and there are perspectives. The negative traits of the mother or the Somebody McSomebody or the Milkman and the positive outlook of the protagonist’s third brother-in-law and the real Milkman.
‘Already I had my handkerchiefs out, and these were real hankies, fabric, not paper, and not that long ago they used only to be male ones, those big white linen ones, because pretty as the female ones were, they weren’t much for blowing your nose. ….i’d carry a female one for cultural, aesthetic purposes and a male one for practical purposes…‘
In the time of ‘Me Too’, this book acquires a greater stature as it questions the definition of stalking. Should stalking a girl without physical assault be an offense or not? What about the mental trauma that a girl undergoes during this period? Questioning the role of a girl’s support system – the parents, the boy-friend and the police. The protagonist questions the categorisation of rape into ‘full rape, three-quarter rape, half rape or one-quarter rape’ in her area. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by Anna Burns to keep the reader on the brink of anticipation and question our sensibilities. Are we still thinking emotional trauma to be ignored and be overlooked?
‘I’m male and you’re female’. If you are interested to read 348 pages on gender prejudices and stereotypes, you will relish this.