Milkman by Anna Burns – The Middle of The Troubles

Milkman by Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, tells the story of an eighteen year old girl living in an unnamed Northern Irish city during the 1970s. The fact that author Anna Burns is from Belfast, gives us a pointer to how we should picture this fictional city. The narrator, sometimes referred to as Middle Sister, lives in the equivalent of East Belfast, a ‘renouncer’ area, run by paramilitaries fighting British rule. With trouble all around, Middle Sister tries to muddle along, attending a French evening class, going running in the park, reading nineteenth century novels while out walking, and pursuing a not-quite-committed relationship with her motor mechanic boyfriend. Then a man known as Milkman, high in the local paramilitary hierarchy, embarks on programme of intimidation designed to coerce Middle Sister into a relationship with him.

Milkman is often funny, told in a charmingly off-kilter, conversational style. But don’t expect something like Derry Girls. The narrator lives in a very hard place, trying and failing to remain neutral and middling in a situation where neutrality is impossible. She becomes the talk of the neighbourhood as rumour spreads about her ‘relationship’ with Milkman. In many ways this is a study in the contradictions of extremism. Does Middle Sister suggest the middle, as in the most important centre of things? Or is she middling in the sense of being ordinary and unremarkable and nowhere near the centre of things? The story presents her as both. The middle is a boring place that people go to extremes to avoid. It is also the best place. A character called the ‘real milkman’, who delivers actual milk, is a much better man than Milkman, the paramilitary leader.

Apart from this consideration of extremism, which of course remains very relevant, the 1970s society portrayed in Milkman also resonates in the way its truths rest on rumour, propaganda, fear, disinformation, and people believing what they want to believe. An ordinary girl living in a judgemental, divided society with fluctuating rules, suddenly finds herself the focus of something that feels very like a social media pile on.

As chance would have it, I started writing this review on the evening of Good Friday 2023, the 25th anniversary of 1998’s Good Friday agreement which brought peace to the warring factions of Northern Ireland. Milkman, describing a world long before the peace negotiated in 1998, still feels relevant. That is quite an achievement.

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