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Home Uncategorized Gender in Conflict

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…

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