Belfast Telegraph

Mairia Cahill: Milkman may be fiction, but its depiction of how paramilitaries use control to prey on vulnerable young women is strikingly accurate... I know because I've lived through it


Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Milkman
Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Milkman

By Mairia Cahill

Finally, someone has done it. In all its authenticity, brutal honesty and grittiness, Anna Burns has, with Milkman, written probably the most important Troubles book yet.

Even if it is fiction. I know, because I've lived elements of it. For that reason it was a tough read, although there are moments of hilarity in what is, otherwise, a very dark novel.

Burns teases out each instance of memory from a reader who can relate, as I can, to growing up in what she calls "totalitarian-run enclaves", while equally having a pop at "state forces".

She neatly describes the inner conflict of people who passively put up with, if not actively supported, the "renouncers" (paramilitaries).

She faithfully describes the attitude to the Army of her main character's community after witnessing the spread-eagling of men and boys against walls: "It was great hatred, the great Seventies hatred."

She describes too how, even if you don't pull the trigger in a conflict, there is a raw emotion of complicity.

"It's amazing the feelings that are in you," she writes. The mental gymnastics needed to live in a community during the conflict is laid out, warts and all.

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Every page casts up reminders. From "one-quarter rape" Kangaroo courts, to the paranoia which exists in communal living controlled by forces, the narrator - whose name we never know - doesn't miss her target.

There is what the writer calls the "pretence" of paramilitaries entering the local club, supposedly to expel underage drinkers, though none are.

Though set in the 1970s, the novel could easily have been set in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I remember an IRA shebeen where young female drinkers were not only welcomed, but IRA men would chance their arm once there.

Starting after other clubs had shut for the night, punters could be treated to a drunk republican swaying to attention while holding a flag while A Soldier's Song was played.

The Milkman character is a similar paramilitary letch with a sense of entitlement to the narrator's body. He stalks her, using his intelligence-gathering skills in an effort to lure her into a relationship. She uses reading and running to escape into her own world in the hope that he will leave her alone. I've seen these men up close, particularly after the release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement, and it's striking how accurate Burns is in describing the control aspect, and how paramilitaries were placed on pedestals which allowed them free rein to behave in this manner towards vulnerable or young women, hiding behind what Burns calls "the cause".

Few writers have covered this subject, as if by ignoring it, like the main character, we can collectively pretend it didn't happen.

Throughout most of his encounters, the Milkman doesn't touch the main character; he doesn't have to, but he has a good rummage around in her head, as does the community when it goes into overdrive and, in what the writer terms "the feeding of the five thousand", spreads a rumour that she is having an affair with him. She isn't.

Her mother at one point outlines a great insight into how toxic relationships can suck a person's soul: "You'll come a shell, moulded by him, controlled by him, emptied, leached of all your strength and your animating spirit."

Even reading books outside while walking causes consternation and rumour, labelling Narrator "beyond-the-pale", something the community doesn't understand and therefore fears.

While confiding in her friend, expecting sympathy, she gets anything but. "The community has pronounced its diagnosis on you now." "Hold on a minute", Narrator replies with black humour and exasperation. "Are you saying its okay for him to go around with Semtex, but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?"

This oppressive, utterly-dark atmosphere leads to both individual and collective paranoia, and the age-old technique of community whispers to denigrate someone's character is a theme through the book.

Having also been on the wrong end of public graffiti on a wall in the area I was raped to shame me for speaking out, only a matter of four years ago, I can relate well to the main character.

A cursory glance at republican Twitter accounts these days indicates that the practice is very much alive and well.

Burns manages to capture misogyny thought that's not to say women don't attract criticism also. Burns describes how the whiff of cordite attracts women who are "unable to grasp with mind and emotion any concept of moral conflict" to testosterone-fuelled men, in an effort to climb an insular social ladder.

Milkman, having just won the Man Booker Prize, is being hailed as having echoes of the Me Too movement. It does much more than that. It brings alive experiences of women like me who have lived through appalling measures of mind and bodily control, without fully recognising the enormity of trauma it brings.

It should be required reading for everyone to examine the harm caused to many as a result.

Belfast Telegraph


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