A satirical novel about coming of age amidst the Troubles, Milkman offers incisive commentary on the pressure to conform during an era of political instability.
Set in the late 1970s in an unnamed Northern Irish city not unlike Belfast, Milkman features an eclectic cast of characters struggling to navigate their community during a time of social conflict. The story takes place 11 years into the Troubles, a 30-year period of fighting between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups.
The plot is simple. The obliquely named “middle sister” narrates the trials she faced as a teen living in an urban war zone, an inhospitable environment where “you created a political statement everywhere you went.” Most notably, upon turning 18, middle sister found herself inexplicably stalked by the eponymous milkman, a lecherous paramilitary leader who threatened to wreak havoc on her life if she resisted his advances.
In spite of the sensational premise, very little happens in terms of plot. The adult narrator instead offers surprisingly droll, verbose reflections on the hardships of having come of age in a place “sunk into one long, melancholic story.”
The prose is complex but engaging. Lengthy sentences unfurl at a measured pace, and stunning images of darkness and “shininess” flicker throughout the narrative. Middle sister’s sharp wit and black humor push the story forward, even in its bleakest moments, toward a memorable conclusion.
The stream-of-consciousness novel’s experimental form won’t appeal to everyone, but Burns doubtlessly has crafted an unforgettable tale about what it means to fall below “the benchmark of social regularity” at a time when difference is demonized.
I read and reviewed Milkman for BookBrowse, where my full review can be found. I’ve finished the novel twice so far, but I can see myself returning to it before the year ends; as with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it’s one of the most challenging novels I’ve checked out in recent years, and it seems like each read would offer a new experience of the text.