“Milkman” is a novel that is difficult to describe. It is not clear exactly where it takes place (somewhere in Northern Ireland) and none of the characters have names (at least not what we think of as proper names). Some of the paragraphs go on for pages and the writing style can be described best as the narrator’s not always chronological stream of consciousness. All that said, I loved this book.
The narrator, nameless, is 18 years old and is being stalked by milkman (later Milkman), a well-known renouncer of the state. Her family consisted of a mother, a father, 3 or possibly 4 brothers, 3 older sisters and three younger sisters. Consisted is the proper term because at the time of the story one brother has been killed, one brother has disappeared into the Middle East, one brother married the wrong woman (therefore ostracized) and fourth brother is not really a brother and he is on the run. Each one is designated as First Brother, Second Brother etc. So far as the sisters go, First Sister’s ex love was killed in a bombing and she married a horrible man, Second Sister was banished by the renouncers and Third Sister, as best I can tell, is perpetually drunk. The three younger sisters, ages 7, 8 and 9 are brilliant and precocious.
The times are precarious with defenders of the state and renouncers perpetually at war. Government operatives are hiding in the bushes taking pictures of perceived state enemies. Every family has lost numerous family members and narrator’s best friend has lost every single member of her family. The community includes a serial poisoner. Everyone is in everyone else’s business and judgmental to a fault. People are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being asked questions and being deemed an informer “Us and ‘them’ was second nature…By unspoken agreement—which outsiders couldn’t grasp unless it should come to their own private expediencies—it was unanimously understood that when everybody here used the tribal identifiers of ‘us’ or ‘them’, of ‘their religion’ or ‘our religion’, not all of us and not all of them, was, it goes without saying, to be taken as read.”
In the time frame of the novel nothing about life is exactly normal. The times are so fraught that even the most ordinary events are suspect. “So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘totally joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in those recesses.”
In addition to the family tragedies resulting from the battle between the renouncers and the defenders, the novel addresses the role of women in the middle of all this (significant and determinative). The community has different groups of women, groups looking into their rights as women and more traditional women who stand up and take action when it is needed. All of the women serve as protectors in one way or another.
The narrator is haunted by milkman. First he shows up in his white van while she is walking reading a book (yes she walks and reads, which the gossipy community finds frightful, ultimately labeling her “beyond the pale”). Then he shows up while she is out running. She is taking a French class and he shows up while she is walking home, carrying a dead cat’s head which she found at a bombing site (a particularly peculiar part of the book which only adds to her reputation as “beyond the pale”).
Narrator has a maybe-boyfriend who works on cars and has come into pieces parts of a Bentley, sadly from over there. The Bentley creates political mayhem in his life. Maybe-boyfriend’s parents deserted maybe- boyfriend and his brothers when they were relatively young, to become famous ballroom dancers. Narrator wonders about maybe-boyfriend because he likes to cook and enjoys sunsets, the normal things she is unable to understand. “it wasn’t just sunsets I didn’t understand. I didn’t understands stars or moons or breezes or dews or flowers or the weather…This was when I began to wonder, again, if maybe-boyfriend should be going to sunsets, if he should be owning coffee pots…”
Milkman is 41 years old, a high ranking renouncer and his stalking causes narrator to suffer what can only be described as multiple anxiety attacks. Despite her refusal of his advances, the community is certain that she is involved with him and of course her mother and family are highly critical and reject her denials. On the other hand, there are the renouncer groupies, who respect her because of her presumed romantic engagement with milkman. Milkman knows of maybe-boyfriend and frequently discusses the unfortunate consequences of car bombing in the context of maybe-boyfriend’s work with cars.
The book has lots of twists and turns, and is filled with dry wit. It focuses on the importance of community and its disruption by religion and politics and ultimately the importance of enduring love. Although it is an extremely difficult read, the story, the characters, the humor and the perspective make this book well worth the effort. The book won the Man Booker prize and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.