I bought this Booker Prize-winning novel a couple of years ago and read it in the space of a few days. Nothing I’ve ever read has given me a clearer idea of what it was like – particularly for a young woman – to live through the Troubles in 1970’s Northern Ireland. Not that Ireland is named, for in this book nothing and no-one is named. The central character associates with many people in the community; Third Brother in law, Oldest Sister, Wee Sisters, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and Real Milkman, so-called to differentiate him from the Milkman of the title, who as it turns out is no milkman at all.
Nor are neighbourhoods named. There are the ‘people over the street’ (Unionists), the Nation over the Water (mainland Britain) and dangerous spots like the Ten Minute Area, so-called because it takes ten minutes to cross. The main character – whose name we do not know – is stalked by an IRA fighter who without saying anything at all definite, appropriates her as his girlfriend. This is a very gossippy neighbourhood where you have only to be seen talking to a man to be practically engaged to him; before long she is supposed to be this guy’s girlfriend and is approached by a gaggle of other such girlfriends in the toilets and given lessons on how to dress (always skirts, never trousers. It’s your duty to look nice for him, etc – but again, nothing is really said, only hinted.) There is no help from the authorities in this society; if you are injured you don’t go to hospital because the police hang around hospitals, and if you are in trouble the last people you go to are the police.
Milkman shows us how an innocent person with no interest in the Troubles can nevertheless be sucked in to assisting one side or the other. The will of the community – and by extension, the paramilitaries – is paramount, and in the end she is only released from the appalling grip of the so-called ‘Milkman’ by his death.
Here’s a good review in the Guardian.
What have you been reading lately? If you’ve come across something good I’d like to hear about it.