Today we'll be bringing you a lockdown book review by Patrick Gaul, vice-chair of our committee and member of our monthly book club.
The Irish Centre book club has been meeting once a month (until now) for about a dozen years. Current members are Angela Billing, Patrick Gaul, Shirley McDermott, Ian McDermott, Owen Hagan, Joe England, Maggie Farringdon, Tony Halpen, Kathleen O’Gorman and Paddy Casey. Milkman by Anna Burns won the Man Booker prize in 2018 and the Orwell prize for fiction in 2019. It was chosen as the Liverpool Irish Centre book for February 2019. I had it sitting on my bookshelf, on my to do list. The book club choice made me read it and it was, no exaggeration, life changing.
The Irish Times said Milkman is ‘a story of Belfast and its sins but it is also a story of anywhere’, which is absolutely right. It is also an extraordinary piece of writing in which nobody has a name, only a description (for example, Maybe Boyfriend; Third brother in law; the republicans are ‘the renouncers of the state’ and the loyalists ‘over the road’) and no place is named (although it is almost certainly set in the Ardoyne in Belfast), nor date given (probably late 1970s).
The central character, the narrator, is a young girl trying to grow up normally in a world which makes little sense to her largely because of sectarianism and the obsession with ‘the others’. All she wants to do is keep herself to herself, enjoying simple pleasures such as running and reading. Her problem is she is ‘different.’ Despite trying to keep her distance from the troubles around her she gets drawn in. She becomes the target of the affections of a paramilitary leader who plays mind games on her to try to wear her down, to groom her.
After about twenty pages you start to think of Orwell. You think of the individual in the totalitarian regime. You think of Big Brother, the British state photographing the local residents as they go about their business. As you go further in to the book you realise that your first impressions were right. Milkman is Orwellian. But the totalitarian state is the state run by the paramilitaries in a republican district of Belfast. By about half way through the book you realise that you are reading a work of genius, that adopts and takes from Orwell but makes it modern and personalises the terrible loneliness and dislocation of a vulnerable individual in a totalitarian regime; someone whose rights are denied by the self-appointed defenders and protectors of that close-knit community. The community is given a personality and identity in the novel and is a living, changing organism, full of contradictions and principles of its own. In one chilling sentence it is stated: ‘The community has pronounced its diagnosis on you.’ A community which thrives on its ‘otherness’, its own differences from the British and the loyalist, cannot tolerate someone who is herself different.
Milkman reminds us how the rulers in any society can bend the rules, distort the truth and corrupt relationships so as to ensure their power is preserved. If you are interested in Ireland and in particular what it was like to grow up in The Troubles this book is unmissable. You will learn more in these pages than reading a dozen history books or one of the many memoirs of those involved in the political struggle. If you like the writing of George Orwell, you will love this book and I suspect you will say that this is better than much of his writing. It is the best book to come out of Ireland this century and like Orwell, it will be read one hundred years from now. It is a great feminist novel, a novel for the underdog, the downtrodden, and ultimately a great tale of redemption and hope. It should be taught in universities, in literature and history. It must never happen again. Try to find the time to read it in the lockdown.