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  • Writer's pictureBarry Gibson

Book review - Milkman: It's brilliant, so it is.

Anna Burns 'Milkman' has to be one of the best books of recent years to really get across the claustrophobia of living in Northern Ireland during 'the political problems'. Having lived in England for almost 23 years it is a golden reminder of what it was like to live there. Burns articulates, through a meandering and thoroughly modern Irish narrative, what it means to be policed by one's friends, family and wider community. To be seen as a possession of somebody or to be assigned to a particular social group either on the inside, the outside inside of the inside, the outside, the other side and of course 'beyond the pale'. She captures neatly the tendency of Irish mums' to assume the worst of their kids (who are only partially competent anyway) and ask questions later.

The novel is set in North Belfast at an unspecified time during the troubles where our main protagonist is frantically trying to manage her identity as she travels through the community she lives in. It is a time and place where illusion becomes reality, and where rumour becomes the truth and where these rumours can kill. The tale is told through a meandering set of non-linear plot loops as our distracted heroine tries to frantically avoid the impossible - being labelled as the girlfriend of a notorious 'non-milkman milkman' (other words for terrorist).

Many people reading the book will miss the fact that this is a book that is not simply a 'stream of consciousness', it is instead written to reflect what a typical conversation between our heroine and the 'uninitiated' reader would be like in Northern Ireland. It therefore follows the same pattern that most conversations tend to follow 'over there'. To the uninitiated it can be difficult to follow a conversation at 'home' because conversations 'loop' through various subjects at random, often in crazy and unexpected ways. In the book our heroine's memory triggers layer upon layer of observation, which nudge their way to the foreground in what seems to be a haphazard manner, allowing the overall kaleidoscope of our heroine's dilemma to gradually take shape throughout the novel.

We get to see how identity is ascribed to different characters who live in 'our area' and on the edge of 'our area'. We have 'renouncers-of-the-state', 'defenders-of-the-state', those from 'over the road', 'state forces from over the water', 'their side', 'our side', 'their religion', 'our religion' and of course 'beyond-the-pale'. The latter being a group of people who were effectively to be excused because they did not fit into any particular category of the former but who, for whatever reason, were to be excused but at the same time pitied. All of these identities were 'policed' by the various factions within the community, all trying to get along together, albeit in a bit of a hurry.

That is the thing about the narrative, it spins through various narrative arcs at a fast pace because no-body has any time to fix things properly. All of the categories are 'ready reckonings', subject to revision, provisional if you like. But overwhelmingly we discover that our heroine is doing her utmost to avoid being categorised. She attempts to do this by policing her own behaviour through her own account of who is who and why, whilst doing her best to avoid all labels, only to find she is 'beyond the pale'. This is, of course, Kafkaesque and being categorised in this way comes out as a bit of a shock to her before things take a rather nasty turn for the worse.

The Kafkaesque nature of this story is a feature that is particularly poignant. It is the people who refuse to participate in the various labellings, and goings on, within the community who are ascribed as 'beyond-the-pales'. Why? Because of their refusal to change, to become embroiled in the practices and doings of the 'renouncers' or the 'pious women'. To have higher ideals (feminisms) is to set oneself aside into a space where social death threatens. To be stubborn and not to recognise the necessity of all of the labels and practices is to set oneself 'beyond the pale'.

It is a brilliant book for other reasons. Throughout we can see how masculinity and femininity are displayed and enacted. The fact our protagonist is being 'stalked' by all manner of men who all conduct themselves in subtly different ways as they vie for her attention. Of her mother and how she treats her with nothing but suspicion, believing all things including her own fantasies about her. She does so without listening to her to find out what is really going on in her life. All of this told with a wit that had me smiling and laughing throughout. This is at times, a brilliantly funny, but persistently manic, paranoid and anxiety driven novel. And sure 'all's well that ends well' eh?

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