The 18-year-old woman who narrates Anna Burns’ dark, piercing novel “Milkman” (Graywolf Press, 360 pp., ★★★½ out of four) just wants to mind her own business.
Read a book while walking home, or catch a sunset with the guy she’s kinda-sorta seeing. But she’s in a time and place where minding one’s own business is all but impossible.
Burns’ novel, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize in Britain, is now being published in the U.S. It’s set in the 1970s and inspired by the Troubles, which for decades consumed Burns’ native Northern Ireland with sectarian violence.
That conflict – over Northern Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom, and stoked by religious divisions – goes unnamed, as does the narrator. That makes the book less historical fiction than an allegorical tale on how life in a war zone short-circuits our capacity to speak and think clearly.
“These were paranoid times. These were knife-edge times, primal times, with everybody suspicious of everybody,” the narrator explains.
The atmosphere turns every abnormality, however slight, into a target for surveillance and scrutiny. The narrator’s walks catch the attention of Milkman, a so-called paramilitary “renouncer” (akin to the Irish Republican Army that opposed British rule), who has an unsettling depth of knowledge about this young woman.
Her “maybe-boyfriend” who she’d rather spend time with is eyed as a traitor merely for owning a car part bearing the flag of the nation “over the water” (read: England). 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.”
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