The narrator of “Milkman” has the geekishly endearing habit of reading while walking wherever she goes. This 18 year-old wills herself to be completely removed from her time and the unnamed city in Northern Ireland she inhabits by concentrating on novels from the 19th century. Her desire to be elsewhere and invisible is understandable given that the atmosphere around her is extremely tense. She lives amidst The Troubles where there are car bombs, executions, surveillance and stringent (spoken and unspoken) rules in place where everyone must carefully navigate the “religious geography”. But she’s not able to fully extricate herself from her surroundings. One day at the beginning of the novel she becomes very conspicuous when she’s accosted by a shady character known as Milkman. Thereafter she’s the subject of vicious assumptions and suspicion. The way this novel rigorously catalogues and artistically renders the frustration and injustice of being raised within a divided war-torn country is admirable. Unfortunately I often found the actual experience of reading it to be frustrating and tedious at times, but I was carried through by sparks of genius that periodically shined throughout the story.
It’s difficult trying to describe my feelings about this book because its dense style is the thing that makes it a great as well as a challenging read. Both the author’s use of language and the text on the page is so tightly packed in it’s as if all the narrator’s irresolvable thoughts and emotions have exploded out. One publicity blurb I read described her writing as like that of Eimear McBride meets Edna O’Brien which is totally apt. Her writing isn’t as fragmented as McBride, but it does give the feeling of wading through a very thick body of water. I get how this reflects the narrator’s dilemma of being trapped in this community and the personal injustice she suffers being dragged into politics she wants no part of. It’s effective while conveying moments of fierce anger and wry comedy. However, there are also long periods of the narrative where I felt so bogged down with descriptions of the conduct and rules for existing in such strained circumstances that I was put off from reading any more.
The readability of the novel isn’t helped by the fact that almost everyone’s proper name is withheld as if naming them might dangerously implicate them in some way. Again, this is an effective technique for conveying the milieu of the narrator’s city and it does serve as an important part of the plot but it makes it quite difficult to fully envision the characters as rounded human beings. Where this element did feel effective for me was in the comic portrayal of the narrator’s younger sisters who are a single chorus of voices seeking to control the narrator by repeating edicts dictated by their “mammy” and sporadically showing a distinct sophistication beyond their young years. It also comes as a relief later on in the novel when central characters who feel so emotionally muted demonstrate hidden depths and concealed desires rather than just being unnamed beings.
There were certain sections which seized my attention and I spent a lot of time rereading them to try to fully take in their rich complexity. For instance, there’s a passage about the danger and difficulty of standing out as an individual in this combative landscape: “part of normality here was this constant, acknowledged struggle to see. I knew even as a child – maybe because I was a child – that this wasn’t really physical; knew the impression of a pall, of some distorted quality to the light had to do with the political problems, with the hurts that had come, the troubles that had built, with the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed willing or able to prevail. The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darkness ran the risk of not outliving it, of having their own shininess subsumed into it and, in some cases – if the person was viewed as intolerably extra-bright and extra-shiny – it might even reach the point of that individual having to lose his or her physical life.” This is a beautiful and heady way of describing the nature of growing up in this violent environment and coming to understand that the standard code of practice which no one dares oppose is the thing which is strangling the humanity out of this community.
Another exquisite section lays out the duality of existing in this conflicted city: “There was no getting away from views and of course, the problem was these views between the areas, between one side and the other, were not just the same. It was that each was intolerant of the other to the extent that highly volatile, built-up contentions periodically would result from them; the reason why too, if you didn’t want to get into that explosive upsurge despite your view which you couldn’t help having, you had to have manners and exercise politeness to overcome, or at any rate balance out, the violence, the hatred and the blaming – for how to live otherwise? This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise. This was underneath the trauma and the darkness a normality trying to happen.” This is such a complex way of conveying the inner struggle people feel in this environment, but following the author’s circuitous logic can be too laborious at times.
Mostly what pulled me through “Milkman” was the deep sense of empathy I felt for the narrator. She must suffer the indignity of being characterized as a certain type of person by her family, friends and community just because a disreputable thug sidles up to her without an invitation. I really felt her turmoil as once the public opinion had been decided there was no way for her to escape it. All she wants is to remove herself from it, but there’s no way for her to escape this toxic environment. The trauma that results from being forcibly pulled into such a self-conscious drama is poignantly reflected in her viscous narrative. I just wish it was able to maintain its effectiveness while also being more readable.