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Gender in Conflict

Milkman, by Anna Burns, Faber & Faber, 368 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571342730

“Hold on a minute. Are you saying it’s okay for him to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” So asks the narrator of Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, an eighteen-year-old school leaver called simply “middle sister”. Her “longest friend” responds pithily, “Semtex isn’t unusual … It fits in – more than your dangerous reading-while-walking fits in.” She informs middle sister that this confounding habit of burying her nose in a book marks her as “beyond-the-pale” because she appears oblivious to their hazardous environment. These young women inhabit a “community under siege” in an unnamed city, within a “statelet immersed long-term” in conflict.

The novel’s geography is noticeably suggestive of Ardoyne, a predominantly nationalist working class district of north Belfast and a Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) stronghold during the Troubles. Although the date is not given directly, the narrator mentions that “this was the Nineteen-Seventies” and “the political problems of eleven years were going on”. This would place the action in 1979, a significant year in the chronology of the conflict due to the number of major violent incidents that occurred, as well as Margaret Thatcher’s election victory, which returned a Conservative government to power in the UK. It was also the era of the republican prisoners’ “blanket” and “dirty” protests, which were part of the campaign to reinstate special category status. In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Milkman, Burns portrays the “psycho-political atmosphere” which emerged from this context. Thus, the setting of the novel is at once Belfast and not-Belfast – for the physical topography is overlaid by that of the narrator’s consciousness. Burns traces the psychological effects of this milieu on the adolescent protagonist, who attempts to evade the sexual advances of Milkman, a married, middle-aged “renouncer-of-the-state”. The narrator remarks that Milkman is not just “any auld renouncer”, but “one of our high-ranking, prestigious dissidents”. The book chronicles a period of two months during which Milkman preys upon the narrator, grooming her to become his mistress.

In many ways, Milkman appears to be an alternate narrative thread that has come loose from Burns’s kaleidoscopic debut novel No Bones (2001). No Bones is also set in “the tiny, old Catholic district” of Ardoyne during the Troubles. It comprises a series of vignettes that take place between the “official” start of the conflict when the British army was deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 and the ceasefires in 1994. Similarly, while the main storyline of Milkman occurs in 1979, the retrospective narrative also references events occurring in the 1980s and ’90s. The central focalising character of No Bones is Amelia Lovett, who is also the “middle sister” of her family and roughly the same age as the narrator of Milkman in 1979. As Stefanie Lehner points out, the name Amelia is “reflective of Amelia Street, which used to be at the heart of Belfast’s red-light district”, and the surname Lovett “evokes that of fifteen-year-old Ann Lovett”, who died after giving birth alone beside a Virgin Mary grotto in Longford in 1984. The protagonists of No Bones and Milkman seem to function as ciphers for young Irish women and girls whose lives are shaped by structural violence. Both novels are anti-bildungsromane which use postmodernist techniques to disrupt their own plot and to reflect the fractured, traumatic consciousness of their protagonists, who come of age during a period of prolonged conflict.

In his review of the Orange Prize-shortlisted No Bones, former PIRA volunteer Danny Morrison dismissed the novel as a “misanthropic portrayal of the nationalist people of [Ardoyne]” and expressed concern that “a southern Irish or English audience would read this novel believing the fictional context to be a faithful representation of reality, even if the story is completely blown by its surrealist affectations”. I would counter that Burns’s use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”. This enables empathy on the part of the reader, who bears secondary witness to the protagonist’s traumatic experiences. As the dust jacket for Burns’s 2007 novel Little Constructions states, her oeuvre “examines what transpires when unspeakable realities, long pushed from consciousness, begin to break through”.

Burns explains that her writing explores “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm”. In particular, she indicates that gendered violence is everywhere, but it remains unacknowledged “in the context of the political problems, where huge things, physical, noisy things” happen “on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, on a television newsround-by-newsround basis”. In Milkman, as in No Bones, Burns analyses “the conditioning of males and females here” by depicting the construction and experience of gender under conditions of armed struggle. She charts how young women navigate a nexus of protracted conflict and entrenched violence within a coercive, tightly patrolled community.

Significantly, No Bones also features a menacing, albeit minor, character who is a milkman. Eddie Breen works as a “lemonade man”, “hobby horses operator” and an “explosives deliverer” for “the Provies”. Although Amelia does not encounter Eddie directly, she is aware of his reputation as “a madman” and his lorry hovers in the background of the novel. She recalls their near-miss: “Then Eddie Breen’s ice cream lorry, which sometimes was a lemonade lorry, a milk lorry, a whatever-was-wanted-at-the-time lorry, came screeching round the corner.” The eponymous Milkman becomes a central character in Burns’s latest book, “stepp[ing] out of nowhere onto the scene”. Middle sister recounts:

I didn’t know whose milkman he was. He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him. He didn’t ever deliver milk. Also, he didn’t drive a milk lorry. Instead he drove cars, different cars, often flash cars, though he himself was not flashy. For all this though, I only noticed him and his cars when he started putting himself in them in front of me. Then there was that van – small, white, nondescript, shapeshifting. From time to time he was seen at the wheel of that van too.

As this description illustrates, Milkman represents a narratological shapeshifting – a repetition with a difference. Symbols from No Bones reappear in Burns’s new novel; however, they are stripped of their signifiers, and proper names all but disappear. For instance, middle sister comments, “In this district, where most streets were identical, the renouncers, to slow and confuse the enemy, had removed every single street sign.” Correspondingly, Burns removes the narrative signposts from Milkman, challenging the reader to navigate the complex social cartography of the Troubles in this “no-go area”.

“Religious geography” demarcates the narrator’s environs, as a number of interface points surround her neighbourhood. Her house is located on one side of an interface road: “This sad and lonely road ran between the religions … that dark and bitter sectarian flashpoint … the road of separation.” To walk along this road is to risk exposure “in the middle of a dangerous nowhere”, and yet middle sister asks her “maybe-boyfriend” to drop her off here regularly. Although she lives in a paramilitary enclave where street shootings are commonplace, she attempts to ignore the surrounding violence. This proves to be difficult because her family is “connected” to the PIRA – one of her brothers died fighting the “enemy” and another is “on the run.” She states offhandedly, “This of course was all part of the political problems here which I, for one, didn’t like to get into.” She tries to rationalise her position, explaining, “Despite two of my brothers having been renouncers, we were averagely in, the normal amount in.” She is out enjoying her favourite activity when she has her first “uninvited” encounter with Milkman. She recounts, “He appeared one day, driving up in one of his cars as I was walking along reading Ivanhoe. Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.” Milkman asks:

“You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you? So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he? Your brothers, thingy, thingy, thingy, and thingy, used to play in the hurley team, didn’t they? Hop in. I’ll give you a lift.” This was said casually, the passenger door already opening. I was startled out of my reading.

Although she has never met this man, he greets her like a familiar acquaintance. She notes, “by age eighteen, ‘smiling, friendly and obliging’ always had me straight on the alert”. Middle sister thinks, “I did not want to get in the car with this man. I did not know how to say so though, as he wasn’t being rude and he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family.” She politely declines to get into his car and eventually he drives away but by then, news of their encounter has already begun to spread throughout the neighbourhood.

Burns juxtaposes the narrator’s perspective with the “district consciousness”, which thrives on suspicion and rampant gossip. Middle sister remarks, “As for the rumour of me and the milkman, I dismissed it without considering it. Intense nosiness about everybody had always existed in this area. Gossip washed in, washed out, came, went, moved on to the next target. So I didn’t pay attention to this love affair with the milkman.” Not long afterwards, she goes for her usual run in the park and he appears, “again out of nowhere, falling into step beside me where he’d never been before”. Milkman repeatedly materialises “out of nowhere” because he is an embodiment of the persistent threat of sexual violence that is enmatrixed within the narrator’s environment. He is also part of the ubiquitous surveillance culture within this conflict zone, where the narrator’s every move is tracked by her neighbours, the local “renouncers-of-the-state” paramilitary, the “paramilitary defenders-of-the-state ‘over the road’” and the state forces. She notes,

An audible ‘click’ sounded as the milkman and I ran by a bush and this was a bush I’d run by lots of times without clicks coming out of it … So I was to be on file somewhere, as a once unknown, but now certainly known associate. This milkman himself made no reference to the click even though it was impossible that he had not heard it.

There are also “plenty of quiet, unnoticeable people who took a bit of watching”, and once they are spotted together the community automatically labels her a “paramilitary groupie”. They decide to inform her mother:

“Ach, you know, neighbour,” said the neighbours, “the one in the background, the one who does that stalking, that tracking, all that shadowing and tailing and profiling, the one who gathers the information on the target and then hands it to the trigger men who—”
“Baby Jesus!” cried ma. “And you’re saying my girl’s involved with this man!” She grasped the arms of her chair … “He’s not that milkman, is he – the one of the van, that wee white van, that nondescript, shapeshifting—”
“Sorry, neighbour,” said the neighbours … They said then that at least my lover was a renouncer-of-the-state and not a defender-of-the-state, something to be grateful for.

The rumour confirms her mother’s worst fears and she chooses to believe the neighbours’ account rather than that of her own daughter. Middle sister marvels, “she called me a liar … The community was keeping her abreast, she said … ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale.’” Her mother’s viewpoint aligns with the “district consciousness”, which conflates gossip with gospel.

As a “traditional woman” her mother “still in principle approv[es]” the PIRA’s “initial objective” and is “in no way prepared to denounce them publicly to a state to which she did not ascribe validity”. Nevertheless, she warns her daughter against associating with “fast, breathtaking, fantastically exhilarating … rebel men” because paramilitarism is not conducive to family life. She opines, “Look at yer woman round the corner. You could say she loved all her saturnine husbands, but where are they now? Where are most of those women’s brooding, single-minded, potentially implacable husbands? Again, six feet under in the freedom-fighters’ plot of the usual place.” Referring to their own family history, she cautions, “Look at your brothers. I’m telling you, it’ll end badly.” She implores the narrator to consider her “real-life-proper female aims and objectives” and asks, “what of your female destiny?” Her mother implies that in their district, male destiny is to join the “local boys” and fight for “the good of the cause and the defence of the area”. In contrast, “female destiny” is marriage and motherhood – a “divine decree, a communal duty, a responsibility … having right-religion babies and obligations and limitations and restrictions and hindrances”. For “Marriage, after territorial boundaries, is the foundation of the state.” Here of course “the state” is an anticipated united Ireland, an end goal of the republican campaign. The traditional militarised gender regime in their “renouncer-run area” supports men as political actors and delineates women’s roles as primarily familial.

The narrator is hurt that her mother does not believe her and she longs to confide in someone about her predicament. She laments, “But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.” In an effort to lose Milkman’s interest and subsequently, that of the community, she adopts a perpetually blank facial expression and begins a gradual process of self-effacement. She states, “I’d hoped the sheer nullity of me would lead them to doubt their inventions and their convictions, even to suspect that a renouncer – especially that Man of Men, Warrior of Warriors, our high-celebrity, local community hero – could ever have developed lust for such an inert, vapid person as myself.” However, her plan backfires when her visage gets “stuck” that way, signalling that she is Milkman’s “possession”. As a result, “the local paramilitary groupies were also now paying attention” to middle sister and they accost her “in the toilet of the district’s most popular drinking-club”. She recalls, “They surrounded me and regarded my face in the glass,” offering her chewing gum, lipstick and Estée Lauder, and she “accept[s] this friendship or overture of pretend-friendship for no other reason than to buy time because I was afraid.” They encourage her to relish her new role:

“I’d always have a tough guy,” said the oldest-looking, the one who’d handed over the perfume. She was at the sink beside me, talking to my reflection, before transferring her gaze over to herself. … “A dangerous man,” she said. “Masculine. Very. Has to be. Love that sort of thing.” As she invited my reflection to agree another interrupted. “But that searching for the extreme … I mean all that life and death and heroism,” she said … “The average man,” said another, “cannot do that. Not even the average renouncer.”

The narrator remains silent throughout this scene, which figures her psychological detachment from her physical and emotional experiences via the metaphorical dissociation of her reflected image in the mirror. She ponders, “And there I was, in the middle of them – one of them – even though so far I hadn’t said a word.” However, she realises “That wasn’t how it would look” to the women coming into the toilet and “glancing towards us, then quickly glancing away. That was what I used to do, who I used to be, whenever I’d come across these groupies.” Her new status not only separates her from herself – it also sets her apart from the other young women in the district.

This passage explores a variation of what Elena Bergia calls “seductive capital”, a specific form of symbolic capital that paramilitary men accrue owing to social recognition of their actions during the conflict. Bergia argues that seductive capital is linked directly to masculinity. She applies her theory to IRA ex-prisoners in West Belfast who gained a heightened sexual status upon their release from Long Kesh/Maze Prison. Bergia maintains that seductive capital arises from their struggle as volunteers and prisoners, which is perceived to be a valiant effort, thereby ascribing them a certain level of sexual power within their community. Her theorisation of seductive capital can also be expanded to address communal attribution of sexual power to paramilitary men during the conflict more generally. In Burns’s novel the renouncers exploit this power, “making use of that patriotic, great-guy image, the good guy, the heroic guy, the invincible, sexy, maverick male defeater of all bad guys for the glory of his country”. The gathering in the women’s toilets demonstrates how, in turn, the men’s behaviour manipulates “paramilitary groupie” consciousness. The women extol “That buzz … The deference, the entourage. All that confident, fantastic, elemental male presence. It’s a force of nature. It’s that they take control, they keep control, they have everybody wrapped around their fingers.” While listening to their exchange, the narrator learns that “apparently the average woman wasn’t up either, to being the woman of a renouncer. … ‘The common woman,’ they said, ‘nice, ordinary, boring – she can’t have that. She loves dully… fills her life with timid tasks and mundane men, not men of high calibre.” They explain that only certain types of people can handle the “paramilitary lifestyle” in a place where people “live and die in extremes”.

Thus Milkman explores how different, complicated categories of masculinity and femininity develop within a site of armed conflict involving both state and non-state forces. Via the male “renouncer-of-the-state” and “defender-of-the-state” characters, Burns examines what I will term “paramilitary masculinities” – gendered expressions of attributes, behaviours and agency associated with men, defined within the context of paramilitary struggle. Furthermore, she also considers what I will call “paramilitary-adjacent femininities” through her characterisation of the “traditional women” and “paramilitary groupies” in the novel. These femininities are defined in accordance with the roles prescribed to them by paramilitary men. The “traditional women” in the novel run the household while the men are fighting or imprisoned. Young boys act as “district spotters” to warn against incoming police or soldiery, while young girls are expected to help out at home. The “traditional women” also support the cause by banging bin lids, breaking curfew en masse and operating “safe-house surgery theatres, back-parlour casualty wards, homemade apothecaries” and the “garden-shed pharmacies dotted about the place”. The “paramilitary groupies” and “renouncer-wives” support the men by looking good, keeping secrets, staying faithful and “making prison visits and tombstone visits”. The narrator does not want to belong to either subset; however, communal rules dictate that she must subscribe to one or the other group. She observes, “I was coming up against the ambivalences in life.” She becomes more uncomfortable as the women in the toilet speak on “of their behaviours, their carnality, of pain being arousing so that they trained themselves not to resist, so that always they were going around in pleasure …unable to act voluntarily”.

This section suggests that “paramilitary groupie” identity is linked to hypersexuality. Accordingly, the women instruct middle sister on how to convey sensuousness through a hyperfeminine physical appearance: “‘Let him know how much he means to you,’ they said. ‘Look good. Look classy. Always dresses. No trousers. High heels, mind – and jewellery. Never let him down.’” Middle sister remarks, “they were like wee girls, dressing up as movie stars, as femmes fatales, with myself now invited to play along”. She recognises the performativity of their group identity as the women enact it in the mirror. However, while watching their reflections and her own, she experiences intense depersonalisation and becomes a detached observer of herself. She states, “it was as if I’d fallen into the very person, according to everybody, I was now supposed to be”. The “evening of the groupie bonding session in the toilets” is a coercive attempt to consolidate her place within their “pecking order”.

Nonetheless, middle sister is unable to embody this identity fully and she grows increasingly disturbed by Milkman’s “stalk-talk”. On their third meeting, he hints that if she does not break up with her car mechanic “maybe-boyfriend”, someone might plant a bomb under a vehicle at the garage where he works. Her paranoia becomes overwhelming and ultimately debilitating, as its psychosomatic effects make it hard for her to act or move properly. She ruminates, “I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man. Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.” Her condition reflects the pervasiveness of gendered violence, which invades every aspect of the narrator’s life: her family, her community, her psychology and her body. Hers is a self-censored narration for fear of trespassing the “district mores”. She explains, “I needed my silence, my unaccommodation, to shield me from pawing and from molestation by questions. … This was my one bit of power in this disempowering world.”

When a group of women suggest to the local paramilitary that they should do something “about that middle-aged letch in their movement who [goes] around preying upon and grooming young women”, they respond “by saying they would not be drawn into equivocation, nor would they be dictated to”. The irony of their reply shows that women’s attempts at speaking out seem pointless in a place where men get off on standard charges of “one-quarter rape” in the renouncers’ “kangaroo courts”. Middle sister recounts:

‘Streaks ahead therefore we are,’ they maintained, and they meant in terms of modernity, of conflict resolution and of gender progressiveness. ‘Look at us,’ they said. ‘We take things seriously.’ Rape and all that jazz was practically what it was called. I’m not making this up. They made it up. Excellent, they said. That’ll do for them, meaning women, meaning justice for the women.

Burns demonstrates how the imposed system of “community justice” fails the women repeatedly in the novel. Although it is “abusive, sexually invasive, a violating creepy thing”, Milkman’s sexual harassment of the narrator goes unpunished by the renouncers because it is “always a verbal thing”. Moreover, his comrades view him as above reproach since he outranks them and is “no bit player but one ruthless character”. Therefore Milkman’s reputation is untarnished, whereas the community regards middle sister as a “hussy” and a “loose woman”. Not only that, she discerns: “It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman.” The narrator remains circumscribed within the fixed social structures that self-replicate at all levels of society.

Seventeen years after the publication of her first novel, and exactly twenty years after the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, Burns resumes her investigation of the unspoken histories of the conflict and its gendered legacy. Her depiction of patriarchal oppression also functions as an implicit critique of “post-conflict” Northern Ireland, where women continue to be treated as secondary citizens. For, as Fidelma Ashe contends, Northern Irish society is “emerging from violent conflict in highly gendered ways”. Claire Pierson argues that the peace process was unsuccessful “in addressing women’s demands for inclusion, equality and social justice”, and therefore it remains “incomplete”. Similarly, Margaret Ward points out that whilst the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition made a significant contribution to the Agreement, the current dispensation “does little to implement the pledges made in the Agreement to ensure a greater level of gender parity in public and political life”. Correspondingly, Burns recognises that the dominance of the “political problems” during the conflict occluded other problems within gender and sexual politics – issues which still lack visibility in contemporary Northern culture. The gender dynamics of “community justice, by way of the renouncers” in the book also echo those of post-Agreement, state-sanctioned “community-based restorative justice” schemes within formerly paramilitary-run districts. These programmes are led by ex-paramilitary men, who tend to position themselves as leaders of peacebuilding and community conflict resolution, thereby sidelining women. In light of these factors, as well as recent events such as the Ulster Rugby rape trial; the closure of the Marie Stopes Belfast clinic due to lack of funding from the UK government; the political vacuum at Stormont, which has shelved the gender equality strategy and a domestic violence bill; and the continuing struggle for reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, justice for women in the North seems a long way off. In Milkman, Burns surveys “that official ‘male and female’ territory, and what females could say and what they could never say”. Her approach is dazzlingly inventive, with a disarmingly loquacious and often darkly funny stream-of-consciousness narrative, and a distinctive surrealist style. In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.


Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic and a dual specialist in Irish and Caribbean Studies. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies ReviewBreacCallaloo, the Sunday Business PostFour Nations History, and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to The Honest Ulsterman, the Dublin Review of Books and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda



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