As nonsensical as it may be to conclude in January that you have probably already read your favourite novel of the year, that is what I’m doing. This thing is superb, whichever angle you come at it from. It is a worthy winner of the things it has already won and will be a worthy winner of whatever other plaudits come its way.
It is set in Northern Ireland apparently in the 1980s, probably in Belfast. But nothing is named, not even the people, and therein lies a large part of the genius that helps it to work. This most serious of histories has some pitch black absurdism at its heart that just shouldn’t be there, but these are people as well as characters in a ‘situation’ and people get through with humour and so it is quite correct for this to be there.
The ‘maybe-boyfriend’ of the ‘maybe-girlfriend’ in their nearly one year ‘maybe-relationship’, third sister and third brother-in-law, not to mention the Milkman of the title – an apparent pseudonym for a paramilitary leader and the only name he goes by, despite the fact that everyone seems to know his real identity – not to be confused with Real Milkman, who is really a milkman. The 18 year old narrator, lives among ‘the renouncer’ community, which in a display of mass irony, refuses to allow this young woman the right or the voice to renounce everyone’s stated belief that she is having an affair with the ‘Milkman’. She isn’t. But when everyone steps aside in the chippy to let her to the front of the queue and she gets her chips ‘on the house’, she can’t see any way to fight against it.
A derelict church is blown up in some kind of no man’s land. The tension ratchets while everyone tries to discover whether it was ‘one of ours’ or ‘one of theirs’, or perhaps an accident. Eventually it becomes accepted that it was an old piece of munition from WWII and everything ‘returns to normal’. Maybe-boyfriend’s quiet life as a mechanic is disrupted when he acquires the parts to the super-charger of that very British car, a Bentley and his community come to believe that in doing so he has also taken in a part bearing the ‘flag from over the water’.
In this civil war that became ‘the great euphemism’ as far as English reporting was concerned, The Troubles, this book of an ordinary young woman and her family, trying to get on with their ordinary lives turns everything into euphemism and in doing so explodes it for the nonsense or hypocrisy that it was.
I was a teenager during similar years and this is a part of my country and I never knew ‘the truth’ of what was going on there, partly because of the bias in the reporting, but also, I suspect because one truth of this time doesn’t really exist, and so it becomes a ground for story tellers and poets and other interpreters – here I am reminded of the devastating last lines of another child of that place and those times, Jo Burns (no relation) from her poem ‘The Mid-Ulster Machinery Museum’ about her childhood, ‘…and every child knew the meaning of strange words/ like ‘denomination’ and ‘sectarian”. And we happily played…/ …unaware/ that most don’t look under cars before they can even drive.’
This was part of my country during my lifetime and I didn’t know this. There is a history, or a series of histories to be told here. Few will manage it with such brilliance.