Milkman is the most interesting Irish novel that I have read in years. Three good friends of mine grew up in the troubled heartlands of Belfast. I also spent some time in a home for young offenders in the early eighties in County Down and as a hospital chaplain in Belfast in the early nineties. These experiences enabled me to appreciate that Anna Burns has captured a historical “truth” in her novel in a surprisingly similar way to Caroline Brothers in her novel, The Memory Stones, about the military dictatorship in Argentina.
It is also clear that reviewers of the novel appreciate its value on different levels. On the psychological level, the novel can be interpreted as a “coming of age” novel where the young woman learns to discern between authentic and inauthentic human behavior and finds her way towards mature human independence as a free woman. However this line of interpretation seems too optimistic for the novel. On the sociological level, the novel could be interpreted, as either a reflection on groups in conflict such as “women versus men”, “us versus them”, “renouncers versus loyalists”, “young versus old”, etc., or as a reflection on a group in conflict with the roles of the protagonists varying according to their degree of “involvement” in the “struggle”. However this line of interpretation seems too shallow for the novel.
While I was reading Milkman, I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I had to stop to think. I found that I could not read the novel quickly which struck me as quite unusual. Each minor, seemingly insignificant, incident in the story seemed to me pregnant with deeper meaning (the discovery of the cat’s head on the road home, for example). The incidents opened out into an awareness of a cruel malevolence spreading into people’s consciousness like black ink blotting out all that is good and unique in the person.
After every few pages, I found I had to wonder why “middle sister” referred to all the other “persons” in the novel almost geographically by their relationship to herself, “first brother-in-law”, “wee sisters”, “Ma” etc. It seemed to me that by using this device, the intense emotional bonds of family relationships could be decontaminated from “oppressive force” to “objective influence”. Once these relationships are restored to some “objective” or “analytical” framework, then the real reflection on what is happening in this society can begin. This is why I prefer to interpret this novel “philosophically” rather than “psychologically” or “sociologically”.
This novel is not simply a novel about subjugation of women to men or of one community to another but it is also about the malevolent evil of group-think and its power to destroy individual persons.
The only way “middle sister” can retain her human feelings in this Irish nationalist world where all free thinking has ceased is by reading 19th English literature (or by studying French). Through this literature she can connect with all that is beautiful and good in human nature and value it more than everything that her “group-thinking” community values. The only really “safe” relationship where she can be herself is with “maybe boyfriend”. This bitter-sweet relationship allows her the freedom to commit or not to commit at the same time. She can be herself in it.
The ferocious destructive power of group think is highlighted when her own “Ma” refuses to listen to her denials of the “rumour” about the special relationship with Milkman. It is nonetheless into the arms of this “Ma” that middle-sister is content to fall after being poisoned.
“Middle sister” is challenged by her own “wee sisters” who want to read newspapers so that they can find about the “other perspective”. It is clear here that the real struggle is to escape the “group think” and search for the “truth” oneself. It is dehumanizing to renounce this primary “struggle” in order to pretend that some other social “struggle” is more important. Such renunciation means death for the soul. In this way Anna Burns rejoins Socrates in his defense of the vocation of a Philosopher.
In a curious finale, middle-sister realizes how her mother has always loved “Real Milkman” whom she rushes to help in the hospital once he has been mistakenly shot. This quiet man models integrity for “middle-sister”. Middle-sister jumps into the breach to help the family and calls on “first-sister” with whom she has just had a screaming row to help her mother. Here, not only has she maintained her own personal integrity in the midst of the horrible evil of group think destroying her community but she has acted in an authentic human way which will bring her out of chaos or into death. In the end it is the enemy who murders “Milkman” (not the real one) and saves her.
Group-think traps us into ways of seeing and believing that are not authentic or human. It is at work at every level of Irish society including both Church and media. For example, during the recent abortion referendum campaign in Ireland, the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” options were presented almost as mutually exclusive choices whereas the truth is that any authentic human action in this world has to balance both these fundamental options in a dialectical harmony. Only a reasonable and discerning human being can do this. Anna Burns points out the malevolence and destructive power of a peculiarly Irish form of “group-think”. That is the real strength of her novel, it seems to me.