In praise of 'Milkman', Ireland's Man Booker Prize nominee
Anna Burnsâs Milkman, a very deserving candidate for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a strange, uncanny tale set in Belfast (although the city is never named) about a young woman trying to avoid the insistent and unwelcome sexual advances of a senior paramilitary figure, âthe milkmanâ.
The novel is an unusual and beguiling piece of prose. Itâs a novel about failing to remember and failing to forget; failing to speak and failing to remain silent. It is much more than a novel about Belfast and much more than a sinister take on the dynamics of an older manâs obsession for a much younger woman. Burns is astonishingly astute about the insidious ways that men coerce women and how women are trained to silence and second-guess their instincts about men â" âhe didnât seem rude, so I couldnât be rudeâ.
Throughout Milkman, lust and desire are threatening, inescapable and habitually tinged with violence. The unnamed narrator, known only as âmiddle sisterâ, cannot love the man she chooses, her âmaybe-boyfriendâ, because the milkman has made thinly-veiled threats to kill him. The milkmanâs intimidating advances to the central character are entirely unwanted but, elsewhere in the novel, the longing she has for her âmaybe-boyfriendâ is also âdangerous, always dangerousâ.
In the novel, sexual desire â" even when part of a consensual relationship â" is frequently associated with fear. Burnsâs twinning of desire and danger is interesting when considered as part of a lengthier tradition of Irish writing. Illicit, forbidden and dangerous longing is a stalwart of Irish literary and cultural history, and there are literally hundreds of stories of Irish (and British, which Iâll get to) characters pursuing people they absolutely shouldnât at great cost. These stories that fuse love or lust with peril are deeply revealing about history and politics in Ireland at particular moments.
Such narratives have a very long lineage. Ancient Irish myths are full of lovers behaving badly and falling for people who are strictly off limits. Very young women are routinely pledged to much older men and when they fall for someone else, which they nearly always do, this usually ends in chaos and tragedy. From Deirdre and Naoise , to GrÃ¡inne and Diarmuid, and Tristan and Iseult, the stage was very much set for the enduring appeal of furtive, and often fatal, romances. After all, such stories offer everything we want: sex, violence and drama.
Thereâs also an argument that a heady mix of infidelity, betrayal and politics led to the beginning of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Diarmait Mac Murchada (c.1110-1171) was dispossessed of his kingdom following his abduction of Derbforgaill, the wife of Tiernan OâRourke. To get his land back, he enlisted the military aid of the Anglo-Norman Earl Richard de Clare (alias Strongbow), promising his daughter, Aoife, and the kingship of Leinster in exchange. When Mac Murchada died, the second, and much larger, Norman invasion of Ireland took place. This romantic transgression looms large in the Irish imagination. Joyce makes a throwaway reference to Mac Murchada and Derbforgaill in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses and Daniel Macliseâs painting, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854), hangs in pride of place in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.
Stronghow and Aoife are an early example of the now ubiquitous âlove across the divideâ: a type of romance narrative that took a decidedly political turn after the Act of Union, when Ireland became a part of the UK. As historian Roy Foster argued in Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History, the relationship between Britain and Ireland has been fashioned in a âbrutally simpleâ way: âcolonization as rape, [the act of] union as shotgun marriageâ. In the years following the union, Ireland saw a rise in ânational talesâ, such as Sydney Owensonâs The Wild Irish Girl (1806). These novels typically involve a marriage plot â" almost exclusively between a Catholic Irish woman and a Protestant Anglo-Irish or British man â" signalling the union between the two nations. Such ânational romanceâ allegories, often uneasy and contradictory, tended to rely on the association of Ireland with the female: an association curiously forged by both English imperialism and the Irish themselves. In these novels, the intoxicating thrill of a love story that cuts across social boundaries sets out to achieve some serious political and nation-building work.
Attempts have continued unabated since the rise of the national tale to depict Irelandâs difficult and intimate relationship with Britain as a (sexually) frustrated and dangerous romance between lovers from âopposing sidesâ. These types of stories became increasingly common with the partition of Ireland and as the euphemistically named Troubles escalated in violence and terror in the latter decades of the twentieth century. We can see this trend across TV, film, novels, theatre and poetry. Seamus Heaney, for example, wrote several poems engaging with this, including Act of Union and Punishment (both from his 1975 collection, North), about a young woman who has been tarred and feathered as punishment for her relationship with a British solider. Anne Devlinâs short story, Naming the Names, from her 1986 collection, The Way-Paver, gives us another version of the trope via a âhoneytrapâ narrative. Brian Frielâs Translations (1980), where an Irish woman falls for an English soldier in the 1830s, recently enjoyed an all-star revival at the National Theatre in London. We can read these love stories as being a fundamental exploration about the legitimacy of the Northern statelet and the ongoing national struggle w ithin its borders.
But what does Milkman have to do with this tradition? While our unnamed narrator is fiercely aware of the dangers of prohibited romance â" suitors must be of the âright religionâ and her elder sister âbrought disgrace upon the familyâ by âmarrying-out to some state-forces personâ â" her omniscient admirer is from within her community.
In Milkman, romantic and sexual desire is something deeply troubling; in addition to the milkman himself, the British military sexually harass republican women and our narrator is aggressivel y pursued at points by âSomebody McSomebodyâ, a âgrudge-bearing, stalker typeâ who wonât take no for an answer (you can see why reviewers have highlighted the relevance of the novel in our #MeToo moment). We might read Milkman alongside another body of Troubles fiction that presents us with love stories couched in the danger and allure of the forbidden âlove across the divideâ narrative, but where the lovers are not from opposing groups at all. Bernard MacLavertyâs Cal (1983) is an excellent example of this, as is Robert McLiam Wilsonâs novel Eureka Street (1996).
Eureka Street may open with the line âAll stories are love storiesâ, but what these romances really tell us is about how people negotiate their everyday existence in an extremely hostile and difficult environment. Milkman reveals just how relentlessly oppressive Belfast really was in the 1970s: particu larly in certain communities, particularly for women and particularly for young women.
But Burnsâs novel also makes a searing commentary on the conservative political climate of 2018 and the domestic debris that decades of conflict have left in their wake. Love and desire in the North are still intensely political. There has been a surge of writing from the North, as the academic Caroline Magennis has noted, thinking through intimacy, love, sex and desire. Women writers are at the forefront of this boom, and important works include Bernie McGillâs Sleepwalkers (2013), Rosemary Jenkinsonâs Aphroditeâs Kiss (2016) and RoisÃn OâDonnellâs Wild Quiet (2016). Lucy Caldwellâs Multitudes (2016) has several stories about how and whom we should be able to love, from mixed race to same-sex couples.
There is much anxiety in Milkman about men living with men, âmixed-religionâ couples, and âunmarried couplesâ. At one point, a knowing comment is made that âMarriage after territorial boundaries, is the foundation of the stateâ. In 2018, same-sex couples in the North are still denied the right to marry; the most recent attempt to change this was vetoed by a petition of concern by the DUP â" a direct legacy of the Troubles. For Northern Ireland is still a state that legislatively restricts the ways people can love even if, culturally at least, things are changing. Burnsâs novel is, for all its darkness, ultimately hopeful about the future imagined and represented in the strong, intelligent and brave young woman at its centre.
Dr Alison Garden is a Marie Skodowska-Curie Fellow at Queenâs University, Belfast. Her first book, The Afterlives of Roger Casement, is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press. You can learn more about her research at alisongarden.com and follow her on Twitter at @NotSecretGarden