In this personal essay, Colin Crummy, who grew up in South Armagh, explains how Anna Burns’ Booker winner held up a mirror to a world of suspicion, surveillance and groupthink
The voice of ‘middle sister’, the narrator of Anna Burns’ 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel, Milkman, is so urgent and peculiar - and so specifically Northern Irish - that it felt recognisable to me from its first words. ‘The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me,’ the Belfast teenager begins her story, ‘was the same day the milkman died.’
From this deliberately sketchy, violent and mordantly funny start, Burns’ tale takes the reader down the rabbit-hole of late 1970s Northern Ireland during its 30-year conflict: the Troubles. The 18-year-old protagonist, only ever referred to as ‘middle sister’, finds herself accused of an affair with a paramilitary, 23 years her senior. As her life is monitored, observed and encroached upon, she tries to make sense of a society that has fallen to groupthink. I read it and immediately recognised home.
This month sees the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. I first read Milkman on its publication in 2018, 20 years on from the historic deal which signalled the end of the Northern Irish conflict. I remember, from that opening line on, how much Burns’ third novel felt like a revelation. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, I was used to the facts of war: the death tolls, the time the bomb detonated, the such-and-such family members left behind. But I hadn’t encountered writing that described how it felt to exist within a totalitarian society and to call it by its name. To paraphrase local writer Eoin McNamee’s blurb for Milkman, I too had been waiting for a book like this for decades.
I hadn’t considered, for instance, how living in Northern Ireland during that time meant living life under total surveillance. In Milkman, this is middle sister’s day-to-day existence. She is scrutinised by ‘first brother-in-law’, who makes his ‘lewd remarks’ about her when his wife is out of earshot. She is observed by the community, which decides her traits are so out of step with the norms as to put her potentially ‘beyond’ society, a dangerous place to be. She is trailed by the milkman, who is a not a milkman but a shadowy figure intent on an affair with her. In this warped, rumour-filled world, fiction can quickly become gospel truth.
There is plenty of ambiguity and euphemism in Milkman. No-one is named, everyone is described as vaguely as ‘middle sister’. The war is not between Catholics and Protestants but ‘renouncers’ and ‘the opposite religion’. We never know if the milkman is a member of the IRA, only that he’s a paramilitary. This sense of not-quite knowing and not-quite speaking the truth perfectly suits the book’s tyrannical conditions.
In Milkman, it is middle sister’s intelligence and her gender that raises suspicion, but there were plenty of other codes you could unwittingly break in this ultra conservative culture, drawing unwanted attention
Middle sister is marked out as ‘other’, not because of anything related to the Troubles, but because she is bookish and quiet and is in the habit of ‘reading-while-walking’. This otherness - which could be seen as someone trying to disassociate themselves from the violence that surrounds them - marks middle sister out. She becomes someone to be tracked, one of the ‘quiet, unnoticeable people who took a fair bit of watching’. It is while reading-while-walking that the milkman targets her.
Soon, middle sister’s personal space is being encroached upon in all sorts of ways. An early example sees a physical intervention, when the milkman approaches, uninvited, while she is running. But the book is particularly strong when other characters encroach psychologically, feeling emboldened to tell middle sister what they think. When first brother-in-law sexually appraises her, she is left reeling: ‘So he made his remarks and felt entitled to make his remarks and I did not speak because I did not know how to respond to this person.’
Such invasiveness may not be uniquely Northern Irish, but is very much part of how we operate. I grew up in South Armagh in the 1980s, a rural, working-class community along the north’s border. Like Milkman’s fictionalised version of the Ardoyne area of Belfast, in which Burns grew up, this Catholic, Republican enclave operated as a closed society, too. There were few Protestant neighbours, schools were segregated, and socialising was dictated along sectarian lines. The British army had checkpoints, foot patrols and heavily fortified barracks, but the IRA ruled the roost. Mostly everyone knew how to behave without having to be told.
In Milkman, it is middle sister’s intelligence and her gender that raises suspicion, but there were plenty of other codes you could unwittingly break in this ultra conservative culture, drawing unwanted attention. You could be not womanly enough or too womanly. You could certainly not be man enough. You could be too smart or too stupid, and it was hard to see which was worse. You could be not religious enough or away with it altogether. Most people could never quite see the line before they crossed over to what middle sister describes as ‘beyond’.
Anna Burns is the first Northern Irish Booker winner and local readers have told her how accurately they felt the book captures the atmosphere of threat that was prevalent all the time
Middle sister is keen to tune out of all this noise and suspicion, and it is books that provide a semblance of escape. Her reading list, which includes Ivanhoe, favours the 19th-century. ‘I did not like the 20th century,’ she explains. But it is impossible for her to avoid it. Growing up in Northern Ireland, I too tried to live in my own world. I remember the distractions of Dallas on the telly and Ireland’s Johnny Logan winning Eurovision. But I also can’t forget the day I stayed home from school with a tummy bug and we heard a bomb go off down half a mile down the road, killing the two young IRA men who had accidentally detonated it.
In Milkman, an informant’s corpse can expect to end up ‘found up an entry with a tenner in its hand and the bullets in its head’. In our area of South Armagh, they could expect to be shot, and their bodies dumped along quiet country roads. One such dispatch occurred after dark on what was our school bus route home. Every day afterwards, I would imagine the dead man there, his head hooded and his knees deep in the ditch where he fell on them. To live in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was to exist with violence on the brain. Middle sister doesn’t pay heed to ‘the problems’ but absorbs them anyway, ‘because of osmosis’.
Anna Burns is the first Northern Irish Booker winner and local readers have told her how accurately they felt the book ‘captures the feeling of what was happening, the atmosphere of threat that was prevalent all the time’. Burns describes things that are never normally described, like how all the intimidation and oppression, so slippery and hard to articulate, still leaves its mark. Existing in this ‘hair-trigger society’, middle sister explains, leads to upside-down thinking. ‘If no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there?’
Twenty-five years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it can sometimes feel like the conflict itself almost wasn’t there. It has taken on a ghostly aspect. It haunts us still, in the local politics, so stubbornly fraught and boring. It’s there in Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis, far and away the worst in the UK, and in the ever-present threat of violence. But it can also feel unreal and intangible, and for those of us who lived through it, it can feel impossible to describe the emotional reality of it all. Somehow, in telling the story of an individual trying to make sense of those years, in all its surreal and pointless absurdity, Burns does just that.