In the summer of 1972 I spent a month, with my then dearest friend, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in both Catholic and Protestant areas.  “The Troubles” had begun four years earlier with a Civil Rights march and exploded seven months earlier in January with the “Bloody Sunday” shootings by British paratroops.  Thirteen marchers were killed outright.  Fourteen were injured, one of whom died later.  Weeks before we arrived, after months of killings of soldiers, civilians and paramilitaries on both sides,  Operation Motorman had  sent several thousand additional British occupation forces into the area. We were there to observe and to encourage nonviolent resistance instead of what had already cost hundreds of lives.

We were braced up against brick walls and heavily patted down by the soldiers, many younger than I was; we were interrogated repeatedly as to who we were and why we were there. We mingled with crowds facing down the soldiers, women banging bin-lids to make as much noise as possible,  rubber bullets coming our way through the tear-gas, and young lads dashing in to pick up anything at hand – stones, canisters, broken glass– and hurl it back.

One evening on the Falls Road, the neutral street dividing the two camps, a Belfast man’s voice called out “D’ye have the time?”  I turned and answered, something like “It’s five ten.”  With those three words I had revealed myself to be an American which to this Protestant man meant that I knew (Teddy) Kennedy and was backing the fuckin’ Catholics.  He started to run at us, and we turned to escape him.  He, being drunk, and we being sober, were soon beyond his curses. 

Some might quibble over whether this is truly war. Not those living in it. In twenty-eight years between 1969, Bloody Sunday, and the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, some 3500 people were killed. Of three groups, Police/Military, Paramilitary –Irish and Loyalist, and Civilian, 1830 civilians died, almost three times as many as the paramilitary fighting men.

It these people whom Anna Burns, in her gripping new novel, The Milkman, writes of.

“In our district the renouncers-of-the-state were assumed the good guys, the heroes, the men of honour, the dauntless, legendary warriors, outnumbered, risking their lives, standing up for our rights, guerrilla-fashion, against all the odds. They were viewed in this way by most if not all in the district, at least initially, before the idealistic type ended up dead, with growing reservations setting in over the new type, those tending towards the gangster style of renouncer instead.”

Though many readers will not see The Milkman as a war novel, it is exactly that to me: not a war story of mighty deeds and clear ideals, but of civilians in bombed out, ever dangerous neighborhoods, the danger of enemy soldiers from “over the water, the danger of government forces “over there” and the danger of the  homegrown, Renouncers of the State, defenders of liberty and freedom, but saturated in the suspicions of informants and spies and so as likely as the soldiers to knock at the door, take someone off, kneecap, tar and feather or murder.

The setting is unnamed and Burn’s inspired use of Middle Sister, First Sister, Second Brother-in-Law and Somebody McSomebody as proper names lets us know this story might be taking place in any of dozens of cities in the world: Basra, Beirut, Benghazi, Brazzaville.  Her experience, however, was Northern Ireland.

Even in a war zone life goes on but with far higher stakes.  Little girls play dress-up in big sisters clothes, little boys play kill-the-enemy with big brothers certainties. Gossip swirls and invents, determines who is “in” and who is “out,” puts lives in danger. An eighteen year old girl is coming of age and Burns imbues her with acute and subtle understanding of her struggles with her mother, the unsteadiness of words and gestures, the uncertainties of friendships, the barely known zones of sex and desire. It is a tension filled story of being stalked by a mysterious,  likely top, Renouncer. It is raising “wee sisters” where playing outside is fraught –the severed head of cat can appear in the middle of the street– but must be done.  And it is a sometimes laugh-out-loud account of nascent feminism in a ‘I’m male and you’re female’ zone, more rigid and intractable when men are proving themselves against other men, their own and those from over the water.

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Middle Sister, the wonderful first person narrator, with now and then a bit of insight, or supposition, into the thoughts of others begins with brief mentions of a gun being put to her breast,  the death of the milkman –the title character, of hit squads, and that her affair with the dead milkman had been rumored about a man who had been stalking her for several weeks, but who she knew “only to look at.”

We soon hear, in her own telling, that she has long thought by “the community” to be “beyond the pale” for her “disturbing” behavior of reading while walking, not just headlines, but Ivanhoe, turning down page corners and underlining, while walking!  Her longest friend tells her,

It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusional. Not public-spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here?’

The milkman himself tells her, as the tension of his stalking begins to mount.  “You could read in my car,” he tells her.  And he lets her know that he knows of her maybe-boyfriend and his possible “traitorship” for having a coveted automobile supercharger, from over the water, with the imprint of that flag on it.  And it was too bad how some people died in car-bombs.

Ever since he’d started in on this role of getting me ready, of putting me into confusion, edging me to the brink where, defeated, I’d surrender and step voluntarily as his woman into his vehicles, I wasn’t sure anymore what was plausible, what was exaggeration, what might be reality or delusion or paranoia. Wouldn’t have occurred to me either, that cultivating helplessness and a growing mental dispossession might all be part of this man’s world of stimulation too.

In a war zone everything acquires added density.  Anything may mean much more, or something completely different than were there no armed men patrolling everywhere and everyone.

That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don’t know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he’d meant, but equally, he might not have meant anything.

The gossip never stops.

The scandal of this milkman affair had mushroomed to the point where it was now rabid and raging and fast becoming a best-seller and because of it, because of all those compounding violations, I was finding myself more and more circumscribed into an incoherent, debilitated place.

Mark our words,’ said people, and again all this made sense within the context of our intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.

And her own mother is part of it.

There was ma too, continuing her barrage of how I wouldn’t get married, of how I was bringing shame by entering paramilitary groupiedom, of how I was bringing down on myself dark and unruly forces, bad-exampling wee sisters, bringing in God too, as in light and dark and the satanic and the infernal. I give her the truth. She didn’t want the truth. All she wanted was confirmation of the rumour.

Death is no longer a rare event; the dead of every family are known, the sacrifices.

It was clear that his relatives’ deaths had affected him, that they had unhinged him, that they must account, at least in part, for his losing grip so spectacularly like that. First his father, then his oldest sister, then his oldest brother, all killed over the last ten years in various renouncer activity. Then there’d been that favourite of the family, the second oldest male, who’d died that time while crossing the road. Two months on from the favourite’s death, there came a day when the fourth boy, still in his nuclear-arms distraction, also died. Pills, drink, a plastic bag over his head and leaving a note which astounded … After that, and out of that original family of two parents and twelve siblings, there was only Somebody McSomebody, his now psychologically debilitated mother, his six sisters and the three-year-old boy left.

Of the many riches Burns mines in The Milkman is the way the war in the streets comes from, and strengthens, the toxicity of male culture, not only directed against the ‘enemy’

…the good guys, the heroes, the men of honour, the dauntless, legendary warriors, outnumbered, risking their lives, standing up for our rights,

but making more undeniable their superiority over women.

This was the ‘I’m male and you’re female’ territory … certain girls [were] not tolerated if it was deemed they did not defer to males, did not acknowledge the superiority of males, might even go so far as almost to contradict males, basically, the female wayward, a species insolent and far too sure of herself.

What is male and what is not extends of course to interests and professions.  The enemy is not enough; their own ranks must be rigorously policed for poofiness, deviancy.

Contrary to other chef parts of the world, a man here could be a cook, though even then he’d better work on the boats, or in a man’s internment camp or in some other full-on male environment. Otherwise he was a chef which meant homosexual with a drive to recruit male heterosexuals into the homosexual fold. to illness But it was mental hospitals, and it was mental breakdowns, which meant cover-up, which meant shame, which meant even more shame in his case because he was a man. Males and mental hospitals went together far less than females and mental hospitals went together. In a man’s case, this equalled a gender falling-down in pursuance of his duties, totalling a failure above all to keep face.

These observations on maleness-in-war are not delivered polemically, but with the slightly removed observations of an eighteen year old girl who is not only transitioning into adulthood but has chosen a deliberate numbness as her way of negotiating both the war and these years of her life.

Purposely not wanting to know therefore, was exactly what my reading-while-walking was about. It was a vigilance not to be vigilant,

It is not only that they have to know where to go and where to not go, what to name their boys and what not to name them — “Nigel, Jason, Jasper were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict”– but what to read and what not to read. Papers from over the water are definitely not to be read

‘Wee sisters!’ we cried. ‘Where’d you get these? What on earth is going on?’ ‘Hush, older sisters,’ they said. ‘We’re busy. We’re trying to understand their viewpoint.’ … we looked at each other – me, third sister, second sister and first sister. Trying to understand their viewpoint! What obscurity would wee sisters utter next? As for their remark, it was of the type that instantly could taint any person in our area. Did ‘INFORMANTS BEWARE’ mean nothing to those three at all?

Nor can the injured be taken to hospital

… because, as with calling the police here – meaning you didn’t call them – involving yourself with medical authorities could be viewed as imprudent as well. One set of authorities, pronounced the community, always brought on another set of authorities, and should it be that you were shot, or poisoned, or knifed, or damaged in any way you didn’t feel like talking about, the police would be informed by the hospital regardless of your wishes and they would show up …

Why would you anyway, with safe-house surgery theatres, back-parlour casualty wards, homemade apothecaries and with more than enough garden-shed pharmacies dotted about the place?

In all the tension of war and of the plot itself, there are people who do the right thing, who care for others,  This eighteen year old we like so much comes through with intimidations and encroachments upon her, but she comes through.  There are laugh out loud moments, as when trying to end a phone conversation.

… they said goodbye which took another five minutes because kind people here, not used to phones, not trustful of them either, didn’t want to be rude or abrasive by hanging up after just one goodbye in case the other’s leave-taking was still travelling travelling its way, with a delay, over the airwaves towards them. Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘’Bye’, ‘’Bye’, ‘Goodbye, son-in-law’, ‘Goodbye, mother-in-law’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘’Bye’, ‘’Bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone …

In short, The Milkman will reward in many ways, far beyond what the innocuous title might suggest.  In fact, there’s a fine story in that, too.

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Though rarely would I suggest in these days of silent reading to ourselves, that listening would be better I have no hesitation is saying so for this book.  The Audible reader, Bríd Brennan, is absolutely fabulous.  An actress from Northern Ireland, her wonderfully modulated storyteller’s voice, with a timbre and a range for each character, has the rhythms and pronunciations of the Belfast Catholic dialect just right.  You will experience the streets I did, even the danger, though the tear gas will not sting your eyes.