Milkman, The Reading Guide
“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” This is the first sentence of Milkman by Anna Burns and in my opinion a superb one. So I’ve read that one sentence out loud to everyone who wanted to hear it. I’ve also read it out loud to everyone who didn’t want to hear it.
Milkman is the book of the month for the My Bookstore X Lees een Boek - English Bookclub. And let’s just put it this way: it’s not an easy read. But, as The LA Times states, it should go without saying that a novel with the setting of Northern Ireland in the late 70's century shouldn’t be an 'easy' read.
The book made me think of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 - 1970) also known as the Biafran War. A history subject I knew, embarrassingly enough, nothing about and therefore I couldn’t quite understand the story. I felt floating while reading. As if I just put my clothes on a hanger but didn’t have a coat rack to put the hanger on. The book only managed to touch me when I had made a reading guide for myself; I read about the war, about the country and it’s history, the politics, the Nigerian tribes.
While reading Milkman I again had this feeling of floating while reading. And although I find it shameful, I have to admit that before I started reading Milkman, I barely knew anything of Ireland’s horrific history. So I decided to do the same thing as I had done with Half of a Yellow Sun: I made a reading guide, for myself but for you as well.
Milkman in short
In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle Sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumors start to swell, Middle Sister becomes 'interesting'. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.
" At this time, in this place, when it came to the political problems, which included bombs and guns and death and maiming, ordinary people said ‘their side did it’ or ‘our side did it’, or ‘their religion did it’ or ‘our religion did it’ or ‘they did it’ or ‘we did it’, when what was really meant was ‘defenders-of-the-state did it’ or ‘renouncers-of-the-state did it’ or ‘the state did it’.” — Though the place is never named, it's quite obvious that the story is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The area Middle Sister lives in is caught between loyalty to the country “over the water” and the country “over the border.”
“These were paranoid times. These were knife-edge times, primal times, with everybody suspicious of everybody. Birth names, family ties, and even pantry contents can raise eyebrows: The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal.” — The book is set in the 1970s and is inspired by the Troubles. There are hunger strikes, safe houses, men in balaclavas and Halloween masks, car bombs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, it became clear that the British government was going to grant some measure of autonomy to Ireland. Protestants didn’t like this one bit. They feared that they would be oppressed in a Catholic-majority Ireland and decided to rebel. And their way of rebelling was quite extreme. So extreme that from 1922 until the late 1960s, Catholics were decidedly second-class citizens of Northern Ireland. They were systematically denied access to jobs and housing.
During the 70’s Ireland was a police state and divided into two groups religions: Catholics and Protestant. Or, as described in Milkman: it was a country with ‘the right religion’ (Protestant) and ‘the wrong religion’ (Catholic).
Oh yeah, also important to know: women were treated like shit at the time. Here’s a list of everything women could not do:
1. Keep their jobs in the public service or in a bank once they married
2. Sit on a jury
3. Buy contraceptives
4. Drink in a pub
5. Collect their Children’s Allowance
6. Women were unable to get a restraining order against a violent partner
7. Before 1976 they were unable to own their home outright
8. Women could not refuse to have sex with their husband
9. Choose her official place of residence
10. Women could not get the same pay for jobs as men
Milkman: Not a real milkman. Says things like: “I am going to kill maybe-boyfriend”, though not in those exact words. Milkman is a high-ranking political dissident, a thug, and a celebrity. He’s married but he wants her for his own nibbling, as a sexual bibelot. I suspect that Anna Burns called the Milkman, Milkman because The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk-crates to doors at the corner of each street. Middle Sister describes her feeling in Milkman’s presence as “the underside of an orgasm”.
First-brother-in-law: We don't like him and his compulsions to make things up about other people's sex lives. He's the person who started the rumor that the narrator has an affair with the Milkman.
Maybe-boyfriend: The guy Middle Sister is dating but won’t solidify her status with. He loves cars. The narrator loves him. Milkman hates him. He is eyed as a traitor merely for owning a car part bearing the flag of the nation ‘over the water'.
Da: Middle Sister's father. Death. Couldn't remember the first names of the sisters while being alive. Also tormented by depression while being alive.
Ma: Obsessed with marrying off the narrator, her daughter. Believes community rumors more than her own daughter, while brooding over her own poor choice of husband. The narrator’s accurate description of her: ”She’s living on another planet and insisting in her ignorance that I come to live on it with her.”
Third-Brother-in-Law: We like him. He's obsessed with working out and Middle Sister takes runs with him. He's also a street fighter and a sanctifier of women.
Tablets Girl: Not a girl, but a woman who is one of the local outcasts in Middle Sister’s town due to her propensity to poison people.
Somebody McSomebody: Another stalker of Middle Sister and surviving son of a renouncer family which has been struck by serial tragedy and who has self-delusions that he is a senior renouncer agent.
Nuclear Boy: Somebody McSomebody’s brother – obsessed with the prospect of a Russia-America nuclear war to the bemusement of those around him.
The Preachy Issue Women: A much-feared group of feminists. Resented but also protected by the older women.
Real Milkman a.k.a The Man Who Doesn't Love Anybody: A real milkman. He is kind. He’s one of the oldest friends of Ma. Middle Sister feels save with him. Says things like: “Life here, said real milkman, simply has to be lived and died in extremes”.
Wee-Sisters: Middle Sister’s three younger sisters who, despite their young ages, are infatuated with topics such as French revolutionaries, going through. The narrator reads them The Exorcist and Doctor Faustus before bed.
The Local Paramilitary Groupies: Attempt to induct her into their ranks.
The Ex-Pious Women: A group of aging religious ladies who rival ma for the attention of the real milkman
Often used words and terms
Beyond-The-Pale: In this community, there are ‘acceptable aberrations’, to the status quo and non-acceptable ones. Those who do not conform are ‘beyond-the-pale’. People that are ‘beyond-the-pale’ are people that seem different than others.
Renouncers of The State: Akin to the Irish Republican Army that opposed British rule.
Jamais vu: A refusal of the narrator to confront the reality of trouble and contradictory situation,
Shiny People: Outcasts who rail against a long-conditioned melancholy, an otherwise ‘buried-alive, hundred-per-cent, dulled-to-death, coffined people’.
Reading-While-Walking: a feature that isolates the main character of Milkman as she faces the mainstream intolerance of her ‘totalitarian community’.
The Country Over The Water: England
Ten-Minute Area: A derelict buffer zone
Something to think about while reading
- Although paramilitary and state violence are not directly shown in the novel, how is their presence felt?
- Do the issues that come up make you think of any other regimes or contemporary problems?
- How do you think the narrator disrupts the status quo?
- What do you think about the way women are treated in the novel?
- What do you think is the relevance of the fact that the main characters aren’t named?