THE PLOT: Set in 70’s Belfast during the Troubles, the protagonist is an eighteen-year-old girl known only as ‘middle sister’. An intelligent girl, she’s considered strange by her community, and her mother doesn’t understand why she does not want to settle down and get married. When middle sister captures the eye of IRA bigshot Milkman, she is unsettled and doesn’t want anything to do with him. However, Milkman begins to stalk her and the rumour of their supposed relationship grows beyond her control.
RATING: The plot summary sounds interesting, right? Well this novel gets three stars because the plot I’ve outlined never really happens. It’s alluded to and skirted around but there’s no action. Don’t get me wrong it’s a beautifully written novel. In keeping with the setting there’s misdirection, fear, darkness and confusion that suffuses everyday life for a civilian in a guerilla war zone. But despite the wonderful style, this novel simply lacks the fundamental core of storytelling – it needs a beginning, middle and an end.
GOOD BITS: The style, setting and theme are the best aspects of this novel. Narrated in the first-person past tense, Milkman is an interior monologue. The repetition and circular thoughts create a claustrophobic atmosphere, which is difficult to read. You can imagine being watched by the IRA and the state and informers and your own family, which takes an emotional toll on the reader like it does on the protagonist. None of the characters or locations are named, so there’s a wonderful sense of ambiguity which heightens this tension as phrases like ‘over the water’ ‘over the border’ ‘the wrong religion’ are repeated.
The theme takes this dark tension and relates it to the emotional abuse suffered by women, linking in hints of second wave feminism and the persistent personified rumour that’s ruined women (their reputations and sexual freedom) for centuries. The idea that Milkman never touches her, that abuse can’t be real unless it’s physical, is powerfully embodied by the State presence in the country. It’s an intelligent metaphor for the psychological damage an occupying force has, which can be more powerful that their physical damage.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: In theory this is a great book. My own musings on what’s good about it makes me think this is a great book. So, why does part of me hate this book? Maybe the author has done her job and I’m left feeling the trauma of the book in my soul… maybe this book has outsmarted me? I just can’t help thinking that it needs a climax. Halfway through it does start to ramp up and make you think it’s going somewhere, so the lack of climax and resolution is so devastating it makes the physical act of reading this book very jarring.
OVERALL: Honestly…if you just like reading things you enjoy…I wouldn’t bother reading this book. It’s long, cumbersome and uncomfortable. However, if you have some connection to Northern Ireland or are fans of high-concept literary novels (if Faulkner and James Joyce are your favourite authors), go ahead and buy this book. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.