"These were knife-edge times, primal times, with everybody suspicious of everybody," says middle sister, the narrator of Anna Burns's brutally intelligent novel Milkman, set amid the Troubles in 1970's Northern Ireland.
There were the general Troubles, of course, but middle sister's specific troubles begin when a powerful paramilitary figure called the milkman (he's not a milkman) starts offering her rides home. She says no, but he begins trailing her, insinuating himself, making oblique threats.
"At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were — if no physically violent touch was laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn't there?" she says. "I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near."
Things escalate. She is "being followed, being spied upon, photographed, misperceived, encircled, anticipated." Gradually the fear invades every aspect of her life. People in the neighborhood believe she is having an affair with the milkman, and fear her too.
Middle sister's voice is wonderful: knowing, sideways, deeply interior, ungrammatical, full of lists and wanderings, by turns demotic and mock-grand. Creepy speech is "stalk-talk," the paramilitaries, according to her mother, are "early-to-death rebel men." Her dad's depressions were "big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions."
As you will have noticed by now, the characters of Milkman don't have names. Instead, there is middle sister, eldest sister, longest friend, wee sisters, Somebody McSomebody and first brother-in-law. Then there is her "maybe-boyfriend," a mechanic who, the milkman implies, might find himself on the wrong side of a car bomb soon.
It isn't just people: the unnameability of things is central to this novel, and to the hot, choked paranoia and tribalism of its context. Middle sister doesn't use words like Ireland, Britain, Protestant, Catholic, IRA, Republicans, Unionists, or Belfast. The enemies are not called Loyalists or British but those "over the road" or "over the water." Language itself betrays allegiance; certain words — quintessential, extraordinary — are obviously and unacceptably "over the water" words. Specific names were forbidden: anything too over-the-water-ish (like Nigel) induced a "taunting, long-memory, back-dated, we-shall-not-forget, historical-distaste reaction."
The namelessness is at once superstitious — perhaps if you don't name something, it won't have power over you — and futile — everything about you gives away your allegiances, down to the brands of tea you drink. There is "[t]he right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal." Newspapers, cars, health care: For the people in middle sister's community, even going to the hospital was a sign of conspiracy, and "[t]he only time you'd call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them."
In this state of mute innuendo and fear, middle sister can't explain to anyone what is happening with the milkman. She doesn't have the words. In the meantime, the political and social atmosphere becomes so clotted and choked and paranoid that it resembles Elsinore, with spies and traitors everywhere. The result is numbness, a community of people who become "buried-alive, hundred-per-cent, dulled-to-death, coffined people." The enemy itself is basically absent from the story: It only manifests as the click of surveillance cameras. Instead, we watch a community mutilate itself from the inside.
At its core, Milkman is a wildly good and true novel of how living in fear limits people. Perhaps the novel's most memorable strain is the way that characters in this world can't ask for what they want for fear of not getting it, or of getting it and inspiring jealousy, or of getting and losing it, or perhaps just of getting it and not being able to bear such a large and foreign and terrifying thing as happiness. Hence what middle sister calls the "wrong spouse" phenomenon, when you marry someone adjacent to the person you really love, the way you would avoid looking directly at the sun. But despite all that, Milkman still contains a sideways kind of hope. Because, as middle sister discovers, fear isn't as bad as numbness. Behind fear, animating and sharpening it, is the possibility, however tenuous, of joy.