In the aftermath of war, body and memory often remain vandalized, but literature can restore us to ourselves with its complexity. A book like Colm Tóibín’s “The Story of the Night’’ calls out to us not for its clarities about the AIDS crisis and Argentina’s Dirty War, but for the comforts of seeing how difficult it is to grapple with these subjects.
Anna Burns has also written such a book. “Milkman,” her fourth work of fiction and winner of this year’s 2018 Man Booker Prize, offers an extraordinary glimpse into the perils of being a woman during the tail end of an armed conflict, when boundaries remain dangerous. Of tribe and religion and us vs. them, of flags, of gender. “This was the I’m male and you’re female territory,” the narrator says at one point, describing why she cannot speak out against the titular character, a paramiltary fighter who is stalking her.
The novel begins at full gallop, charging out of the gate in the voice of its unnamed narrator, looking back on her years as the middle daughter of a sprawling family in a time of melancholy and troubles, probably the occupation and resistance in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, where Burns lived before moving to England in 1987.
Stripping key details from the scrim of her prose allows Burns an enormous degree of freedom in her narration. It re-centers this book away from a chronicle of the heavily debated and squarely onto her narrator. Thus we rapidly learn of her persecutor. He didn’t actually deliver milk, or even drive a milkman’s lorry. He actually just curb crawls at the start, as it’s called in Ireland and the UK, driving along, car door open, asking luring, insinuating questions of the 18-year-old, who had the temerity to walk down the street reading a book, “Ivanhoe.’’
Burns instantly captures the many unnerving ways the times made it hard for the narrator to speak back. How she was trapped within a system of social queues that stoppered her mouth. “I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family . . . and I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude. So I hesitated, or froze, which was rude.”
“Milkman” reads like the work of a woman who has decided to freeze no more. Page by page, its narrator takes in a big lungful of narrative air and spins out one gorgeous, syntactically perfect loop of story after another. This a dense, musical book that sounds in the head like a symphony played by a soloist whose dazzling energy and elliptical progression create the unusual feeling of there being a crowd of musicians producing its rich sound.
But really it’s just her and that huge voice. Part of how Burns accomplishes this feeling of muchness within a device, known for its limitations — the first-person narrator — is to lean on the tools of modernism. Even when the book’s narrator is speaking, the boundaries of her voice thin, even disappear. In this fashion she puts us in contact with the many men and women in her life. People step onstage and briefly take over a scene.
Proceeding in concentric circles the narrator tells about her hoarding, car-loving “maybe-boyfriend,” her dead father, her kind brother-in-law, and her not so kind brother-in-law. There’s an older sister and a wee sister. Without quotation marks around them at all times, their voices become her voice in a way, and in doing so effectively demonstrate how societal pressure doesn’t press down on a person. It makes them speak in its voice.
Nowhere is the book more powerful on this topic than when it deals with shame. Early on, the narrator decides to tell her mother in exact words what the milkman has been doing, since rumors have started. Her mother responds by calling her a liar. In retrospect, the narrator sees shame asserting itself. “Given it was such a complex, involved, very advanced feeling, most people here did all kinds of permutations in order not have it: killing people, doing verbal damage to people, doing mental damage to people, and, not least, also not infrequently, doing those things to oneself.”
Over the course of “Milkman,” we see all of these things happen, as Burns’s narrator has to deal with the metastasis of rumor and falsehood, both sexually and politically. Spies and spooks and resistance fighters people these pages. But it’s mostly in the orchestration of the world of its narrator that “Milkman” truly excels, showing how the milkman exploits its enclosure and interconnectedness. Few works of fiction see as clearly as this one how violence deforms social networks, enhancing, people’s worst instincts.
And yet it would be unfair not to remark upon — maybe even end with — how this book is also bursting with energy, with tiny apertures of kindness, and a youthful kind of joy. Even in dire times people canoodle in dark corners of clubs, kissing. There will be those for whom wit is as fabulous a weapon. To plunge headlong into this voice now feels like a necessary reminder that one of the most complex and difficult emotions to put in a novel of darkness is joy. On that, too, perhaps especially so, “Milkman’’ is a triumph of resistance.
By Anna Burns
Graywolf, 352 pp., paperback, $16
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