What I admire in Burns’ Milkman is everything, including the superb reading by Brid Brennan who owns the text in its myriad eddies and shifts. In this Man Booker Prize winner of 2018 psychic cruelty, physical brutality and family ‘doings’ are observed in a wry, intelligent and nimble voice.
It’s Northern Ireland in the Seventies, although this is never stated outright, and the narrator, middle sister, is accused of having an affair with the milkman, a paramilitary heavyweight who is stalking her.
‘But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.’
We are carried in a breathless monologue as she navigates her way through sex, innuendo, the vagaries of a bookish family and coupling, hence her maybe boyfriend, at a time when menace lurks around every corner.
The quest of middle sister for agency and security in a community under pressure at its gossipy, sex-crazed worst renders her face expressionless. But even this ‘nullity’ becomes treacherous because she needs to show something, but what? Characters have no names but are Somebody McSomebodies, wee sisters, third brother-in-law. This device works magically by taking us nowhere and everywhere.
The wee sisters are a show of their own. They are cartoon characters in their nerdishness demanding readings of the classics; the comic relief in a Shakespearean tragedy. But some scenes are desperately sad. The father on his death-bed remembering his serial rapist is one. The mound of dogs and the cat stories are others. The ciel bleu episode with the French teacher is uplifting and breathes hope into a society that has lost its imagination. Burns is a skilled raconteur in full, lyrical Irishness.
The mention of icons like Kate Bush and Freddie Mercury root the narrative in time and are the kind of pop stars who divide fans and signal social divisions in a place where religion can be assumed by your name alone. While the narrative might appear to loop and meander it cleverly builds with subtle segues as the milkman creeps further and further into the foreground and the maybe boyfriend further and further away.
Burns is laugh-out-loud funny at times. She adopts a stream of consciousness seasoned with the absurd in the traditions of Joyce in parts of Ulysees, and Beckett but with precise punctuation and qualities of her own in her special language play. Her ‘Fuck-off-ly’ and five ways to describe one idea adds to the humour. The mystique around the milkman is another clever device. Such an everyday, trusted carrier of succour to the people is instead a spy, a stalker, a predator and nobody has ever seen him with a bottle of milk in his hand.
‘He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders.There was no milk about him.’
A proper milkman who turns up later in the book is the hero, but bringing grief to the family in an unexpected and hilarious episode.
Burns reminds us of the oppressor ‘over the water’, ‘over the road’ of the fight over a flag. Whispers become accepted truths, batons and prejudices are pulled from under the bed to become weapons of torture to beat ‘the other’. ‘Others’ are girls who read while walking, gays, sexually active unmarried females, unmarried females, boys who cook, anyone who dwells beyond the pales. And I thought there was only one.
Her writing, in the way of Mantel, Atwood and O’Connor, is sardonic and breathtaking but her voice is thoroughly her own. She adopts a way of extreme-explaining and use of hyperbole to expose folly and hypocrisy through faux seriousness.
‘He made lewd remarks about me….–my quainte, my tail, my contry, my box, my jar, my contrariness, my monosyllable…’
She mashes the vernacular, the Latinate, the syntax of the 19th century, (‘I did not like the 20th century’), coined words and the profane in fearless lexical ribbons, all compelling.
Burns is in love with language and she makes us fall in love with language and shows us that the beauty and idiosyncrasies of language need to be fought for when everything else can be lost.
Her achievement is made more poignant learning that she was crippled with back pain in drafting the end of this thrilling ride, eating out of a food bank and claiming benefits once the manuscript was completed and published.
Just when we think we’ve seen and heard everything there is to read and hear about the Sorrows, just when Brexit threatens to secure a hard border once again, when another journalist is murdered, a wife beaten to death, dissenter incarcerated; then the milkman comes knocking. Look, he’s on the doorstep.