Friday 20 July 2018

Breathless coming-of-age tale set in dystopian future

Fiction: Milkman, Ann Burns, Faber & Faber,­ ­paperback, 351 pages, €13.99

Sectarian tension: Anna Burns' novel is set in a city with parallels to Belfast
Sectarian tension: Anna Burns' novel is set in a city with parallels to Belfast
Milkman

Tanya Sweeney

As opening lines go, you'd be hard pressed to better Milkman's starting pistol: "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."

Eighteen-year-old Middle sister, our narrator, lives in a dystopian future in an unnamed city that seems very similar to a Belfast addled with sectarian tensions. It's an area where what religion you are is important, a place where being called Nigel, Jason, Jasper, Winston or any other refined English name is effectively banned. A place where people of interest are singled out and photographed on the street. Though it's in many ways an unremarkable town, it's small and claustrophobic, with an active and busy bush telegraph. Here, women are put under curfew and gossip and hearsay is a lifeblood for its denizens. Consequently, the main aim is to blend in and live as ordinarily as "the political problems will allow".

On Middle sister's 'side of the road', the renouncers-of-the-state are heroes, good guys who have iconic status in the community; their groupies are concerned with the prized position of being the one and only woman for their man. Middle sister's family worry about her edging towards this territory.

"At 18 I was never going to admit that, regarding sex, there was an awful lot that I didn't understand about it," says Middle sister. "These women - through their appearance, their words, the very way they moved their bodies - also liking to be watching, moving and conducting these bodies - were threatening to present sex to me as something unstructured, something uncontrollable, but could I not be older than 18 before the realisation of the confusion of the massive subtext of sex and the contraries of sex should come upon me and uncertain me?" Well, quite.

Middle sister is in a tentative relationship with nearly-boyfriend - immature, unworldly - and at the outset of the book is attempting to quell rumours that she is having an affair with Milkman, a paramilitary who is 41. "I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and having an affair with me."

Middle sister and Milkman eventually do have an encounter, though she can't for the life of her figure out how it all came about. She is desperate to keep her family in the dark about it all, but her brother-in-law soon puts paid to this idea when he tells his wife, the book's third sister. Thanks to his meddlesome input, the rumours soon take on a life of their own. A rogue's gallery of characters - tablets girl, chef, the aforementioned Somebody McSomebody - edge the book towards its grisly denouement.

From the outset, Milkman is delivered in a breathless, hectic, glorious torrent. The pace doesn't let up for a single moment. It doesn't make for an easy, nor an immediately absorbing read. Anyone expecting accessible characters or a clear-cut, neatly mapped out plot will be left wanting. The action moves hither and thither, forcing the reader to piece Middle sister's story together with small, scattergun jigsaw pieces. Add to this the very palpable tensions and anxieties of Middle sister's world, and Milkman can sometimes feel like a nerve-jangling reading experience; exhausting, even. Yet those who stick with Ann Burns' hectic, stream-of-consciousness writing, not dissimilar to that of Eimear McBride or Flann O'Brien, are more than rewarded.

Belfast-born, Sussex-based Burns has already written of the conflict in the North to wondrous effect in her daring debut novel No Bones, shortlisted in 2001 for the Orange Prize. Little Constructions (2007) explored the psychological impact of the Troubles on its young protagonist.

Her writing has been described as "point-blank poetry", and rightly so. Her grasp on Middle sister's voice is so confident, and the textures of the environment, with its politics both big and small, are a thing to behold. It's an astute, exquisite account of Northern Ireland's social landscape, but Milkman is much more than that, too. It's also a coming-of-age story with flecks of dark humour, yet at other points it's a damning portrait of rape culture, and how women are often regarded in communities like this one. Because of this, Milkman is a potent and urgent book, with more than a hint of barely contained fury.

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