Anna Burns’s Milkman — the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize — doesn’t meet the criteria we’ve come to expect from award-winning books. It doesn’t span generations or continents; it’s not a staid reflection on the nuclear family. Like last year’s winner, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s an unconventional historical novel, one that coruscates between past and present, upending the genre itself.
Although Burns makes it possible to deduce that Milkman is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, she scrubs her plot of grounding details, inviting the reader to draw connections between her past and our present. And her characters’ struggles are timely. Hearsay abounds in the vacuum left by diminished faith in institutions. Faith in one’s own perceptions, too: Above all else, this story is about how a divided and untrusting community undermines its own citizens — a process that sounds familiar to us. Burns’s characters are so downtrodden by the state of things that they sink to performing — or consenting to — intimate acts of violence. They aren’t held accountable for their crimes, and the crimes committed against them aren’t avenged. The story’s hero instead lays blame on the town (likely Belfast), which feels like a separate character.
Hardly anyone in the book has a proper name; they’re given only a referent. Our narrator, Middle Sister, spends most of her time going on runs and reading 19th-century literature, often while walking, a quirk that has established her as an outcast. Maybe-Boyfriend has been asking her to move in with him in the red-light district, where unmarried couples shack up — a move that Ma, a traditionalist, is very much against. And there’s the titular character, Milkman, who isn’t a delivery person, but a much-older paramilitary, and who’s decided that he’s interested in Middle Sister and begins following her, subtly asserting his power.
The book’s no-name effect is twofold. First, one feels that in this community, individual expression has been stamped out. Characters are not single entities but exist only in relation to one another. So-and-so is somebody’s father, somebody else’s ex-maybe-lover. It’s a character’s standing — within a family and within society at large — that matters most. And second, as a consequence, acts of violence are depersonalized. The death of one ex-maybe-lover is interchangeable with another, and therefore, in the scheme of the story, inconsequential.
The community discusses such violence without emotion. Car bombs and poisonings are fodder for gossip, on the same level as who’s dating whom. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare the novel’s handling of public brutality to the experience of living in the world today: After so much of the same, our collective grief flatlines into something more like depression. It begins to seem false — and even naïve — to describe disgusting acts with disgusted language, because disgusted language feels hackneyed. How, then, to break out of this cycle of dead bodies and deadened nerves?
For the characters in Milkman, there seem to be two options. You can repress your feelings and focus, instead, on getting by, on surviving; or, you can resist the pressure to conform, and risk the label of “beyond the pale.” Between her habit of reading while walking and her run-ins with Milkman, Middle Sister takes the latter route — albeit not quite willingly — losing the trust of her family and friends.
Middle Sister reaches out to each of her closest relations, who, one by one, succumb to groupthink, believing the community’s rumors over her own word. Ma, Longest Friend, and finally Maybe-Boyfriend become convinced that she’s been sleeping with Milkman, when in fact all that’s happened between them are a few puzzling interactions. The tension builds as Milkman encroaches, but he never directly threatens Middle Sister. In fact, the man himself is absent from most scenes; gossip about his influence and his desires is threatening enough. Milkman is both a product and an avatar of his community; it’s the people warning against him who give him his power.
Finally, Middle Sister begins to doubt her own feelings, her own view of reality. “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?” Today’s readers will recognize this as the language of gaslighting. So, perhaps, does the narrator (Middle Sister years later), who makes it clear that the tools to understand such socially sanctioned abuse just weren’t available at the time.
Through Middle Sister’s misadventures, Burns manages to create a world where nebulous power games are as painful to live with as a black eye, though tragically invisible. This is the book’s strength, but it also makes for a dense — and at times unrewarding — reading experience. Middle Sister feels bereft of both a sense of self and the ability to respond to dramatic events. Each scene winds up serving a similar purpose: to show us her intelligence, her coolness, her rejection of her own personhood. Just when you expect her to break down, or at least open up, she once again retreats into distancing analysis. And while her response feels psychologically true, a novel is a curious medium for a character devoid of a rich inner life. For as much time as we spend with Middle Sister, we never do get to know her.
It may be that Burns hoped to show us her powerlessness. If order is restored by the novel’s end — if Middle Sister no longer has to worry about Milkman — it’s only thanks to chance, not to anyone’s agency or personal growth. The arc of the novel curves right back around to its start, where the cycle of violence will likely begin again. Middle Sister is free, but her reputation is permanently scarred while Milkman’s is untouched. Her disillusionment will sound familiar to anyone frustrated by the quickness with which Louis C.K. or Brett Kavanaugh can rebound, their power guarding them against even the clearest accusations. To see the same disappointment played out in a historical novel isn’t exactly surprising, but it is deflating. Will nothing ever change?
Just as Burns shears her characters of personal detail and messy inner monologues, she takes care not to remind us too often of when and where we are. Characters slip in and out of colloquialisms, but usually they speak in a fantastically high register, rich with allusions. Even Middle Sister’s Wee Sisters — who are scarcely of school-going age — have already read Thomas Hardy and studied the French Revolution. It’s a funny touch, but still more evidence that these aren’t individuated characters so much as compendiums of history, wryly intoned.
So ultimately, the story is set out of time and place. The community’s political problems are with a rivaling religious group “over there” or “over the water.” There is space for the reader to fill in any number of long-standing disputes, making this historical novel function, at times, like a dystopian one: It provides an oblique and clarifying view of the present. Burns seems to say that at any time, in any context, when we deny each other’s individuality, we deny free will itself. When our voices are so consistently drowned out by an unyielding dominant narrative, we’re less likely to speak up, to object, to say “no.”
Static as Milkman can often feel, there are a few moments where Burns suggests that change is possible. It becomes clear midway through that Middle Sister is telling her story from decades in the future, giving us blips of insight into what feels like evolution. “I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” she observes. “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.” Awareness may not be the same thing as action, but it’s something. In the acknowledgment of a future there’s a possibility, at least, of escape.