Review: Milkman by Anna Burns


“Whatever you say, say nothing,” Seamus Heaney famously wrote. That, surely, is also part of the message of Anna Burn’s Booker winning novel Milkman, in which nameless people constantly talk around everything but the truth. Told from the perspective of eighteen year-old “middle-daughter”, Milkman recreates the world in which the unmentionable troubles of 1970s Northern Ireland took place. This is a world in which a single misplaced word or misunderstanding can result in a whole level of community conspiracy: a kind of fantasy shared by people whose every thought and action seems to be governed by a specific set of sectarian values.

Thus, the narrator is assumed to be the lover of a high-ranking ‘renouncer’ or republican paramilitary known locally as Milkman, when in fact she is being stalked and intimidated by him. As local narratives do not appear to authorise any alternative to the idea that she might be his lover, she is both hounded and feared, becoming as much a part of local political mythology as Milkman himself.

What I think is really important about this book is the way it suggests that, amid the very public horrors of events like The Troubles, more private horrors are ignored or even denied. And that merging of the private with the public or political is part of this problem. Women’s lives are policed, and anything which appears to violate borders or the unwritten code of sectarianism proves threatening.

The other surprising aspect of this book, given what I’ve just written is how funny it is. Written with more than a few nods to the digressive style of earlier Irish writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, this is a novel which seethes with inventive language. And which proves how  language can be used to obfuscate or even annihilate truth.

I will admit to not actually wanting to like this book, purely because I really thought Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under deserved to win the Booker in 2018. And part of me still feels that. But I have never really read a book which is so relentlessly obsessed with its own linguistic medium, and which uses that self-referentiality to interrogate how we use language for political ends. A hard read but a mind-blowing one.

#CzarnyProtest #BlackProtest

#czarnyprotest #blackprotest

Today women across Poland are striking, or participating in protests around the country in major towns and cities. The reason for this is the Catholic church sponsored government’s flagrant attack on their basic human rights: a government which, in many other ways, is also revealing itself to be oppressive, intolerant and in some respects nothing short of totalitarian.

The first sign of the reactionary direction that the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice party) would take with regard to limiting women’s freedoms was the removal of in vitro from the list of state sponsored treatments. This was not done due to financial limitations, but due to immediate pressure from the Catholic hierarchy, denying childless couples in Poland any hope of fulfilling their dreams of starting a family.

However, this move was far less controversial than the decision of PiS to introduce a bill which would criminalise abortion entirely. Poland, along with Ireland, already has some of the most stringent anti-abortion policies in Europe. Currently, such surgery is only possible if a woman’s life is at risk from giving birth, if she has been raped, or if the foetus is seriously malformed. The ban proposed by the government would make abortion even in these extreme cases punishable by up to five years in prison, both for the women involved and for doctors accused of performing surgery.

The consequences of this decision would be devastating. Fundamentally, it would raise the prospect of women going through the pain of labour with the awareness that the child they are giving birth to is already dead in the womb, or will almost certainly die soon after birth. It also means that, in the case in which a woman is raped, she will be forced to carry the child. Abortion will incur a prison sentence harsher than that imposed on the rapist.

But perhaps the worst, most frightening prospect is that of a situation similar to that which currently exists in just a few states around the world such as Ecuador, where women who suffer miscarriages are then accused of having sought out abortion. So, having gone through the trauma and heartache of a stillbirth, women are actually chained to hospital beds awaiting the arrival of police and an eventual prison sentence.

The women of Europe – and indeed anyone else who is outraged by such cruelty and insensitivity on the part of the Catholic fascists who currently control Poland – need to come out in solidarity for Polish women and girls. It is frightening that, even in the twenty-first century, a Church which is misogynistic to its core in terms of its institutions and doctrine, can still influence politicians to such an extent. Support Polish women and the #czarnyprotest.