Although I have a few on my TBR pile, it has been several years since I read a Booker Prize winner. This year I couldn’t resist. Not only is the author from my hometown of Belfast but her story is set during the early years of The Troubles – the era that I grew up in. Also, I enjoyed her debut, No Bones, so was confident I would get on with her writing style. The final push that encouraged me to seek out Milkman was a respected fellow reviewer telling me this was my sort of read. All the stars aligned when my local library was able to provide me with their newly shelved copy.
Milkman should not be rushed. It is not a difficult read but the stream of consciousness narrative imparts a great deal of information that benefits from unhurried digestion. By the time I was around sixty pages in I had also realised that this story is packed full of dark humour. The community portrayed is recognisable and authentic but their accepted behaviour can, with my now comforting distance of time and place, be regarded as risible.
Very few people are named throughout the tale. Rather, they are referred to by their position within families or how they are alluded to by neighbours. The narrator is middle sister, one of ten siblings, and she is looking back on events that occurred when she was eighteen. Her age is significant. Although an adult and working she is not yet old enough to view the world outside her personal cocoon through the lens of lived experience. She copes with the relentless violence and oppression that surrounds her by not paying attention.
Middle sister likes to read while walking, behaviour that is regarded by her community as beyond the pale. When an older, married and powerful paramilitary – Milkman – makes it known that he is stalking her she has no idea why he has singled her out or how to get rid of him. Rumours quickly circulate that they are having an affair.
Middle sister’s mother is appalled, although she can’t quite work out if this is because her daughter isn’t yet married or because she is now the subject of gossip which ripples out to include her other non-standard behaviours. Like most matriarchs in the locality, mother has lost children to the political situation, or due to their transgressions from the strict code of conduct demanded and enforced by casually violent men. Women are expected to marry young and then produce lots of babies. Until they do this, the men feel justified in claiming they can’t help but try to claim the women’s time and attention.
“they don’t see you as a person but instead as some cipher, some valueless nobody whose sole objective is to reflect back onto them the glory of themselves.”
As well as reading while walking, middle sister attends an evening class in the city centre. Her teacher tries to broaden the pupil’s horizons but such thinking is viewed with suspicion. In a small and introverted society, admitting to the possibility of alternative ways of living is dangerous.
Middle sister’s late father had suffered from depression, an illness his wife found embarrassing.
“Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on.”
Stoicism is expected as the community exists within an atmosphere of entrenched pessimism, a loss of trust and hope. To be happy was a risk because how then to cope when the cause of this happiness was removed, as would inevitably happen. The country is regarded as having a long heritage of darkness, fear and sorrow. Those few who do not feel downtrodden, who are not compliant, are exceptions.
“it was hard to deal with the threat she posed by going about completely holding her own.”
When middle sister protests that she is not having an affair with Milkman, that he has approached but never touched her, she is not believed. In this time and place any young women complaining, ‘he did this to me while I was doing that’, would be regarded askance and have demanded of them, ‘and why were you doing that?’
As the rumours gain momentum and start to affect her health, middle sister notices that there is more going on around her than she has been aware of in her short, blinkered existence. The trouble she had feared bringing down on her secret, maybe boyfriend and on her family if she didn’t comply with Milkman’s demands are not the only dangers they all face.
In amongst the constant surveillance and violent, often botched reprisals from both sides of the political divide are the amusing antics of the youngsters, particularly the three wee sisters. Hospitals are feared so the older women, who may appear at times absurd in their behaviour, come together when needed. A fledgling feminist group is viewed with contempt but also bewilderment. All of these threads add colour and depth to the streets that middle sister must navigate.
The writing is witty and perfectly pitched to both challenge thinking and to entertain. Although plainly set in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the 1970s, the place is not named. Thus the depiction may be more widely representative of any closed and judgemental community. The author shows her skill in making this tale uplifting despite the many negative behaviours it observes in passing. It is a meaty, delicious and satisfying read.
My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.