Posts Tagged ‘Anna Burns’

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns – Middle Sister and The Troubles


‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns    (2018) –  360 pages


‘Milkman’ takes place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the late 1970s during the time known as The Troubles – a city divided like no other.

Telling the story is an 18 year old young woman known only as Middle Sister. She has first sister, second sister, third sister, and three wee sisters as well as a few brothers. She also has a maybe-boyfriend. The country over the water governs uneasily. Some of the residents are defenders of this government while others are renouncers. They all live in tight neighborhood enclaves where all are either defenders or renouncers. The renouncers want to be governed by the adjacent country across the border and have formed paramilitary groups to keep the defenders out of their neighborhoods. Here the outsiders’ government is not to be trusted.

The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them, and naturally they would know this and so wouldn’t come.”

A mysterious 41 year old married man – Milkman – starts pursuing our young woman. He is not really a milkman; he is one of the paramilitary leaders of the renouncers. He stalks our young woman. He shows up unexpectedly with his entourage and threatens her maybe-boyfriend among other things. Middle Sister’s family and her neighbors all see her with Milkman and wrongly assume she is having an affair with him. Our Middle Sister tries to avoid Milkman by jogging with third brother-in-law, but still Milkman persists.

We get a strong sense of the all-encompassing paranoia that has gripped the neighborhood when maybe-boyfriend who is a mechanic gets in trouble with the renouncers for having some parts of a Blower Bentley, a car made by the country across the water, in his house.

Our young woman reads only eighteenth or nineteenth century literature.

I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century.”

Her neighbors consider her beyond-the-pale for her reading-while-walking.

‘Milkman’ is a highly original novel that successfully captures the human derangements that must have prevailed in Belfast during The Troubles. It is not an easy read due to its long sentences and long paragraphs, but I would call the novel “wordy” rather than “deep”. The style of not using proper names for characters necessarily leads to long sentences as in her “almost one year so far maybe-boyfriend”. Our young woman narrator is certainly articulate but to capture exactly what she wants to describe sometimes requires a lot of words. Don’t read ‘Milkman’ if you are looking for laconic short sentences. For the most part I had no difficulty following her long trains of thought and even felt enriched by them, but a few times she lost me during a long, long sentence. There were also times where I would stop reading in the middle of a paragraph, something I normally don’t do, but when the paragraph is more than two pages long…

However Middle Sister gives us a convincing depiction of what life must have been like in Belfast during the time of The Troubles.  As far as capturing the paranoid neighborhood spirit of that terrible time in Belfast, The Troubles, ‘Milkman’ is a winner.


Grade : A-


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