Book review — Milkman (Anna Burns)
by Hollie ENNIS
3 August 2022
The physical conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998 — which claimed the lives of 3,600 people and is referred to locally as “the Troubles” — is defined largely as a sectarian and ethnic conflict. At a local level, however, it boils down to “us’ens versus them’ens”. Commentary regarding the Troubles tends to have tunnel vision, with sectarianism and ethnicity serving as the only scope to explain the conflict and the impact on lived experiences. But what of gender and its role in shaping the lived experience during a conflict? One can explore this in Milkman, by Anna Burns.
The award-winning novel is based on the experiences of a teenage girl (referred to as “middle sister”) living in an unnamed city (which alludes itself to Belfast) within the nationalist community during the 1970s. The young girl begins to be stalked by a member of the local paramilitary forces — dubbed locally as “the Milkman” — which fuels rumours and gossip of her new status as a “paramilitary groupie” amongst the local community. Such stalking and rumour have a great impact on her reputation and relationships, but also her mental health.
Three themes emerge from the novel that highlight the gendered nature of conflict.
Hierarchies of harm
Perhaps the most notable theme is the emphasis on non-physical harm that occurs within the novel. The Milkman stalks Middle Sister throughout the novel, appearing out of nowhere yet he never physically assaults her: “He hadn’t physically touched me … everything had to be physical.” (p. 64) Furthermore, non-physical harm is displayed through the impact the stalking has on Middle Sister’s mental health, due to the constant paranoia of stalking and the rumour and gossip of the community: “I’d been constructed into a carefully contrasted nothingness by that man and also by the community.” (p. 303) However, such harm is completely disregarded by those around her due to the perceived lack of relevance to the occurring political violence: “Everything here was overshadowed by the main topic of conversation in this place.” (p. 183) The non-physical nature of the harm is also undermined notably by male characters within the novel, as displayed by the reaction of her brother-in-law: “He couldn’t grasp any abuse other than what he termed rape… the physical and verbal aspects could be the only aspects.” (p. 347)
It is clear that Burns is highlighting a hierarchy of harm that exists with regard to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Rape has emerged as a symbolic gatekeeper of conflict-related harm. Therefore, in framing CRSV, the focus on such high profile and extraordinary violence diverts attention from non-physical violence, resulting in it being placed at the bottom of a hierarchy of harm.
Reinforcement of gender roles
Within a conflict setting, sexual divisions are deepened and the distance between masculinity and femininity is exacerbated — leading to greater reinforcement of stereotypical gender roles within society. This is displayed through the characterisation of the Milkman as “a dangerous man… masculine,” (p. 125) “the dauntless legendary warrior,” (p. 118) who “ruled over areas with final say.” (p. 120)
Such gender roles within society serve as an enabler for gender-based violence. Sexual violence reinforces gendered stereotypes that convey how and why victims are targeted.The Milkman himself serves as a manifestation of patriarchal oppression that is enabled by gender power relations and roles within society. It is not solely his paramilitary status that allows him to commit sexual harm, but his patriarchal privileges. This can explain why he preys upon Middle Sister — an 18-year-old young woman — who due to her sex and age is viewed by gender norms as vulnerable. Combine this with societal conventions that spelt out “official male and female territory and what females could never say”, (p. 9) the almost inevitable occurs when she finally gets into his van: “I knew it was going to happen.” (p. 298) It is clear that Burns presents gendered roles that are heavily reinforced within conflict societies as enablers of sexual violence.
Continuum of violence
The theme of a continuum of violence is used within scholarship to dispel the notion that CRSV is simply a product of the conflict in which it occurs. Gender-based violence should be viewed within a spectrum or continuum, which is not static to one setting but can transcend spaces and time, thus can be present in a pre-, during, and post-conflict setting. CRSV occurs due to the normalisation of daily violence in peacetime or within the private sphere — for example domestically within the home. Rationality is also rooted in the gendered power relations that structure society.
Within the Milkman, he can be viewed to represent the conflict and CRSV. However, Middle Sister experiences sexual harm before and after the Milkman’s harassment. For example, beforehand she is subject to sexual harassment by her brother-in-law: “His predatory nature pushed me into a frostiness.” (p. 2) Then after the death of the Milkman she still faces sexual violence, this time through Somebody Somebody: “It was aggravated harassment.” (p. 307) It appears that the novel exists almost as a timeline for sexual violence — pre-, during, and post-Milkman — highlighting the notion of continuums of gender-based violence.
The Milkman novel reveals the gender-based harms that exist alongside the political and social harms of the Troubles, and puts forward an intersectional approach to harm within it. Perhaps what defines this novel is Burns’ creation of a narrative of the Troubles, where the political and ethnic violence appears as secondary and irrelevant with gender taking the centre stage, a scope that has rarely been explored. Over 20 years on since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and with relative peace across Northern Ireland, we still struggle to understand and define victimhood and harm of the Troubles. This novel and the gendered harms it explores can shine a light on harms beyond those caused by bombs, bullets, and politics, and allow for all victims to be seen, heard, and most importantly, gain justice.