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Reviewed by:
  • Milkman by Anna Burns
  • Jeanette Farrell (bio)
Milkman by Anna Burns. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 2018, 368 pages.

Anna Burns' book Milkman felt astoundingly relevant when it was published in 2018. It tells the story of a young woman growing up amidst the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and is a brilliant depiction of how the strains of a traumatized society impact the psyche. Since then, the novel has won the Man Booker Prize and the world has tumbled even further toward the fraught polarization the book captures. In particular, Brexit threatens to awaken the light sleep of the Troubles and rekindle the conflict the novel recounts. This is a horrible prospect: a 2008 study found 39% of Northern Ireland's population experienced at least one traumatic event during the Troubles, with the legacy that the country has the highest rate of psychiatric illness in the UK, 25% higher than any other country in that region (Bunting et al., 2012). This is a country that desperately needs healing, not more trauma. Another terrible irony is that the same type of polarization that tore the country apart is on the rise throughout the world. As the Northern Irish poet and novelist Nick Laird writes in a recent New York Review of Books article: "we already did identity politics in Northern Ireland: it didn't work out so well. And while we were waiting around for Northern Ireland to become more like the rest of the world, the rest of the world turned into Northern Ireland: partisan, oppositional, identity-focused" (2020, p. 52).

As the world becomes increasingly polarized, and environmental devastation due to climate change amps up the stakes, many more communities mimic the stultifying dividedness Burns so vividly describes. The strains inherent in these communities, and the pressure that places on individuals' psyches becomes increasingly relevant. As analysts and therapists in this world, we need wise, articulate guides—like Burns' unnamed narrator of Milkman—to inform us about the experience of our patients and indeed ourselves. We all need to ask and strive to answer: how do we adequately help our patients articulate what cannot be spoken in the traumatized world we both inhabit? [End Page 816]

The story follows a young woman being pursued by an older, married, prominent terrorist, known as the milkman. To describe who he is in the context of "The Troubles" as seen from the outside, we would say IRA-affiliated terrorist, and as such, on the same "side" in the struggle as our protagonist's family. But part of the genius of this book is that we are never experiencing the conflict from the outside, the conflict is described only as relative to those in the midst of it. From this perspective deep inside the Troubles, nothing is as straight-forward as it would seem from the distance. In the baroque logic of this insular community vitrified by violence, this man's interest in her becomes a terrible social liability and an inevitability that she becomes increasingly unable to resist. The story is told by the narrator looking back on this period from the distance of some years, which enables her to articulate aspects of the story she could not have told at the time. In particular, she is able to describe how her circumstances kept her from even being able to think about what was happening to her.

Our narrator's experience is a vivid demonstration of how a community engaged in sectarian conflict is not merely traumatized by the extraordinary exposure to violence; the way the community responds to that trauma becomes another form of violence inflicted upon its members. This violence is enacted through the strictures it places on the minds of its members, limiting their ability to be guided by their feelings, to acknowledge reality, and to maintain enough flexibility to respond, grow, and change in order to successfully navigate through their lives. And as Burns vividly demonstrates, women are particularly impacted. The implicit misogyny in a society acts as a lever to amplify the subjugation and traumatization of women.

Our wise and funny narrator gradually introduces her reader to the layers of impingement of her...