Milkman by Anna Burns


Anna Burns

A tale of gossip and heresy, silence and inaction...but everything has its consequences.

"It’s not about being happy," he said, which was, and still is, the saddest remark I’ve ever heard.

Set during the Troubles in Ireland in an unnamed city, Milkman is told through the perspective of an eighteen-year-old girl. She has no interest in the Troubles and always keeps her head buried in books – even when walking on the streets. Unfortunately, this very act attracts the unwanted attentions of the Milkman, a married man and senior paramilitary figure, who then marks her as her property. In a time and place where going unnoticed is the best thing for everyone, the narrator has to endure the Milkman’s attention due to his high status. Soon rumours start to spread of an affair between the Milkman and the narrator. The Milkman has a man lurking around her in the silence, and even makes it clear that he will kill her boyfriend if she doesn’t stop seeing him. This creates a constant sense of tension and uncertainty, which is reinforced for the reader as they see the narrative from the girl’s point of view.

Interestingly, not one character in the novel has a proper name; they are all referred to based on the relationship they have to one another (mostly to the narrator), for example, Middle Sister (the narrator), Maybe-Boyfriend, Brother-in-Law, or even just vague terms – in the opening line we meet Somebody McSomebody.

Even though the novel is set during the Troubles, Anna Burns doesn’t directly depict the paramilitary and the violence. They are hinted at throughout when the narrator reveals details of her family; the novel focuses more on the everyday consequences: the oppressiveness of patriarchy, of religion, of distrust and constant fear. The unspecified setting of the novel and unnamed characters mean that the story could prompt thought of other regimes and their impacts, too, but it also strongly resonates in this #MeToo era.

The location and time of the novel are left unspecified. What does this mean and what effect does it have on the narrative as a whole?

How would you describe the society in which the book is set?

The characters of the novel do not have names but they are just referred to based on their relationships to one another. Why do you think Burns chose to do this?

The narrative can be seen as cyclical: the first lines of the novel reveal what the ending will be. What does this represent?

What effect does the narrative style – stream of consciousness – have?


The narrator reaches out to her closest relations, who instead of helping her believe that the community’s rumours are true; even her boyfriend is convinced that she is sleeping with the Milkman. Even Middle Sister herself starts to doubt what’s real and what’s not – she wonders if the Milkman was actually doing anything or if it was all just her imagination. At the end of the novel, however, order is restored: Middle Sister doesn’t have to worry about the Milkman anymore, though not thanks to anyone’s help, but thanks to chance. She’s now free but her reputation is permanently scarred.

Anna Burns was the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Man Booker Prize.

Initially the novel was written with characters having proper names; however, Burns said that it never felt quite right until she removed the names.

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