‘Complicating Things with Fancy Footwork’: The Ethics of Difficulty in Anna Burns’ “Milkman”

By Dr Paige Reynolds

Since its publication in 2018, critics have noted the many challenges posed by Anna Burns’ Milkman, either celebrating or condemning the award-winning novel for its perceived difficulty.[1] Milkman offers a digressive first-person recounting of a young woman being stalked by an older republican paramilitary during the Northern Irish Troubles. The novel documents shocking instances of political violence and sexual abuse, and its complex prose is immersive and unrelenting: details and observations are piled together, and the narrative pacing risks burying even the most harrowing details in a rush of knotty prose, a risk heightened by the lack of tonal complexity. It also requires the constant and attentive parsing of details and associations specific to the Troubles and unfamiliar to many readers. Laden with obfuscations and interruptions, the novel begs even an educated and invested reader to skip over details, to put the book down, to surface read. Yet such seemingly alienating tactics, I will argue, deliberately require that readers slowly and thoroughly read and re-read the protagonist middle sister’s narrative, that we award her as readers the close and empathetic attention that her community in the novel refuses. As such, Milkman demonstrates that the seeming roadblocks placed by difficult books might, in fact, stoke a practice of deep reading and attention that moves beyond the words on the page and into the wider ‘real’ world.

Milkman is difficult because it documents difficult experiences. The repetition of one word, Milkman, throughout middle sister’s interior monologue might be the most overt and crucial example of this tactic. Now an adult, the narrator recapitulates her deeply distressing experiences with political and sexual violence twenty years prior, when she was eighteen years old. Even years later, the loose associations between and among the various people, places, and events that she depicts from her youth are interrupted, insistently and insidiously, by the appearance of the word Milkman (or milkman, before we discover that this is his proper name). While his physical presence is infrequent in the novel, and he never actually touches middle sister, his name nevertheless intrudes throughout the entire narrative to signal the disruptive and disturbing quality of his stalking.  And of course, his authority in shaping her story is most evident in the title splashed across the dust jacket; to discuss this account of a woman’s victimization necessarily means that we must cite the name of her harasser.

In another example of form following function, with citizens under constant surveillance by state and community, the Troubles required a language ridden with euphemisms and silences to hide or protect clarifying details that might invite acts of violence or containment. Middle sister speaks from the historical vantage of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, yet she still withholds details. Few characters are identified by a proper name, and the precise setting of the novel goes unspecified, though close reading suggests 1970s Belfast (Deane; Hutton). The trauma of the Troubles, and the rhetorical habits it generated, continue to inflect and infect middle sister’s language. Across her narrative, arcane and euphemistic terms like “renouncers” (for republican militants) or “beyond the pales” (for those whose behavior has been deemed odd or transgressive) suggest the obduracy not only of outdated words and phrases, but also of archaic ways of thinking.

Despite such interruptions and obliquities, the immersive quality of the narrator’s interior monologue insistently calls attention to her individual experience. Her first-person narrative is sustained and associative, flecked with instances of stream-of-consciousness as well as with reported dialogue, and reveals her intermingled impressions of past experience. The cascade of prose – the long sentences, the extended lists, the paragraphs that run for pages – captures the intensity of adolescent experience as well as her breathless fear of being stalked. But it also urgently calls attention to middle sister and her individual experience. 

In literature, the interior monologue has a long and esteemed tradition, and the notion of an adult rewriting childhood experience is as familiar to readers as the name David Copperfield. But for the narrator, such overt attention to self is a radically countercultural gesture, a revision of the totalizing perspectives with which she grew up. According to middle sister, such communal absolutes were “second nature” in polarised political climate in which individual identity was subsumed in the hostile collective contest between ‘‘us” or “them”’ (22). Even in more personal and intimate settings, such as the family or local community, it remains difficult to distinguish the narrator. In her birth order, middle sister is embedded amid ten other siblings, a surfeit that leads her father to describe any one of his children simply as son or daughter, and her siblings to call each other brother or sister (55).

Such clouding is a cultural habit, a quality of family and communal life, a political and personal necessity. But for middle sister, after being singled out by Milkman for grooming, not being seen also becomes an elective strategy for survival. To be seen is to court danger and to suffer. Seeking to avoid danger, middle sister deliberately works to construct a public self that will not draw attention. Throughout, she claims and describes such strategies, even as they repeatedly fail her: she is terrorised by Milkman, emotionally betrayed by her family and friends, poisoned by “tablets girl,” and beaten by Somebody McSomebody. In keeping with the theme of concealment, she explains her camouflage in a passage buried in the middle of the novel: “I minimalised, withheld, subverted thinking, dropped all interaction surplus to requirement… Just me, downplayed. Just me, devoid. Just me, uncommingled” (174-175). These tactics, by her own admission, make her hard to read. In particular, she hopes they will render her less interesting to the local gossips who have mistakenly presumed she is in a romantic relationship with Milkman.

But in fact these strategies only serve to erase her “inner world” (178), and her retrospective narrative represents an endeavor to recoup and make visible her interiority. Written in the past tense, and ridden with insights and questions that review and assess her past experiences, the narrative suggests that middle sister no longer understands her trauma as ever-present. Yet Milkman’s harassment remains the event that orders her consciousness, and in fact her narrative opens with the “day the milkman died” (1). The legacy of his abuse also reveals itself in the knotty prose that is difficult to parse. It is evidence of the lingering effects of what she understands to be the menacing consequences of being seen in her culture. Rich with detail and insight, but formally abstruse, her story, even twenty years later, is visible but not too visible. 

As an adult, middle sister’s retrospective account of her predation is informed by the changed conditions of her now contemporary moment, by the relative safety awarded by efforts toward peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and readers come to the novel in the wake of the #MeToo movement, with its admirable public exposure and punishment of harassment and sexual abuse.[2] As a complement to these activist movements, Milkman suggests the necessary and difficult tasks that remain: the repeated parsing of the complexities of individual consciousness and experience, as well as of the social and cultural systems and habits that enable and sustain such abuse. These are daunting tasks, and the novel through its formal challenges suggests necessary analytical and interpretive skills that might move us closer to repair.

Milkman ends with a string of seemingly neat resolutions for middle sister: Milkman has been killed, the community has punished Somebody McSomebody for assaulting her, her family relationships have begun to settle. In the final pages, middle sister also reinitiates the routine of running with her well-meaning third brother-in-law, whose serious crossness about her experiences reassures her that “People in this place did give a fuck” (346). But this encounter exposes the lack of nuanced and attentive understanding that enables the violence suffered by middle sister. To even a sympathetic individual like third brother-in-law, “Rape was rape. It was also black eyes. It was guns in breasts. Hands, fists, weapons, feet, used by male people, deliberately or accidentally-on-purpose against female people” (346). Despite the fact that he is the lone character who accepts with certainty that she is not involved with Milkman, she notes, “Not seeing mental wreckage then, seemed one of his downsides” (347).

The problem of not being fully and accurately ‘seen’ rests at the heart of this novel, a point confirmed by the attention it awards to sunsets. The conclusion of Milkman unfolds “in the early evening light” (348), and the cover of the novel, chosen by Burns, is a photograph of twilight on the Belfast Lough. Dawn or dusk, twilight is the liminal moment between light and dark when the sun sits below the horizon and its illuminating rays are refracted and therefore less clarifying: the sky’s blue shade explodes into an array of different colors that meld together, and it becomes harder to see things clearly. It is a rich symbol for the ambiguity and diffusiveness that renders the novel difficult to read.

In chapter three, middle sister reports on two of her early considerations of sunset. The first occurs at the beach with her “maybe-boyfriend” and the second in her evening French language class. Middle sister notes that “[o]n both occasions,” in the classroom and at the beach, the colors of the sky were “blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours arriving, all colours combining, colours going on forever” (77). This is one many instances throughout the novel in which things that appear to be opposites are revealed instead to be adjacent or intersecting. Of note, the narrator is introduced to “the shock of the sky, the subversiveness of a sunset” (77) by characters she cares for who embody seeming contraries: maybe-boyfriend is involved in relationships both straight and gay, the teacher speaks both French and English. 

In these sunset scenes, the novel clearly proclaims its commitment to the ethical necessity of learning to sit with difficulty and the discomfort generated by ambiguity. Middle sister recalls one evening class when the teacher reads a literary passage from a French novel in which the sky is not described as blue. One student protests that the author “‘is complicating things with fancy footwork when all he need say is that the sky is blue’” (69). In response, the teacher demands that the students look outside at the actual sunset, urging them to note the array of colors in the sky.  Such evident complexity unsettles middle sister and her classmates. Faced with her students’ protestations against the multifarious colors of the sky, the French teacher announces playfully, “‘Don’t worry….Your unease, even your temporary unhingement, dear students, in the face of this sunset is encouraging. It can only mean progress. It can only mean enlightenment’” (77). Ambiguity is uncomfortable, a fact that middle sister experiences and understands both intellectually and viscerally. Yet as the teacher insists, to achieve even small changes, “Attempts and repeated attemptsThat’s the way to do it” (101).

Rereading and revising are, as this command placed in italics suggests, the tools necessary to hone one’s ability to tolerate, assess, and move through difficulties; they enable one to claim and articulate individual experience. Middle sister, however, recalls worrying about such repetition, imagining her future and wondering, “What if all the chapters stayed the same or even, as time went on, got worse?” (101). Nonetheless, as an adult, her retelling of her trauma demonstrates the constructive potential of repetition. While the associative narrative with its consistent tone merely repeats the already experienced events of her youth, it nonetheless displays the “progress” and “enlightenment” that the French teacher promised derived from “repeated attempts.” With this rereading of her past, middle sister can “years after” filter her late adolescent perceptions amid “what is the new era of psychological enlightenment” (37) in which “moods” (85) are now understood as depression, and bad feeling openly diagnosed as “shame” (53). All of this repetition brings the narrative to an open ending that offers not a total resolution of the stubborn problems middle sister diagnoses, but evidences a small advance both for her and her third brother-in-law, which corroborates the classroom lesson provided by her French teacher.

Milkman advocates the crucial importance of rereading and revision, as we see when middle sister returns to her teenage experience from an adult perspective, and in doing so demonstrates the genuine analytical and emotional benefits of such repetitive practices to healing. With its formal difficulties, the novel also demands significant intellectual and imaginative labor, as well as patience and tolerance, thus demonstrating for readers their value. These are not practices to be required only of those aligned with malignant institutions or organizations, or of bad actors such as Milkman or Somebody McSomebody. To solve systemic problems is difficult, and it requires the type of work that even third-brother-in-law, despite his best intentions, cannot do because he does not yet have the capacity to read closely and deeply, to understand figuration. These are lessons that must be learned, that should be taught. In the twenty-first-century, where digital media summarises and encapsulates even the densest material for fast and easy reading, and politics are marked by increasingly entrenched opposing factions, contemporary fiction’s “complicating things with fancy footwork” offers not only aesthetic rewards, but ethical and practical ones as well.

[1] For sample praise of its difficulties, see A. N. Devers, ‘Anna Burns’ Booker-winning ‘Milkman’ Isn’t a Difficult Book; It’s a Triumph’, Los Angeles Times, 4 Jan. 2019. For a rebuke of its difficulties, see Dwight Garner, ‘’Milkman’ Slogs Through Political and Cultural Tensions in Northern Ireland’, New York Times, 3 Dec. 2018. 

[2] The chair of judges for the 2018 Booker Prize, Kwame Anthony Appiah, commended Milkman for providing ‘a deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #MeToo is about’ (Flood and Armitstead).


Paige Reynolds, “‘Complicating Things with Fancy Footwork’: The Ethics of Difficulty in Anna Burns’ Milkman“, Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.1.05

About the Author

Dr Paige Reynolds, Professor of English at College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, has published on the subjects of modernism, drama and performance, and modern and contemporary Irish literature.  She is the author of Modernism, Drama, and the Audience for Irish Spectacle (Cambridge UP, 2007), and editor of Modernist Afterlives in Irish Literature and Culture (Anthem Press, 2016), as well as of The New Irish Studies and Irish Literature in Transition, Volume 6, 1980-2020 (with Eric Falci), both published in 2020 for Cambridge University Press.  Her recent essay on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2013) appeared in the collection Modernism and Close Reading (Oxford UP, 2020), and she is completing a monograph entitled Stubborn Forms: Modernism and Irish Women’s Contemporary Writing.

Works Cited:

Burns, Anna. Milkman. London: Faber & Faber, 2018.

Deane, Seamus. “Emergency Aesthetics.” Ed. Seamus Deane. Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2021.

Flood, Allison and Claire Armistead. “Anna Burns wins Man Booker Prize for ‘incredibly original’ Milkman.” The Guardian. 16 October 2018 (accessed 3 March 2021): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/16/anna-burns-wins-man-booker-prize-for-incredibly-original-milkman

Hutton, Clare. “The Moment and Technique of Milkman.” Essays in Criticism 69:3 (2019), 349-371: doi 10.1093/escrit/cgz012

2 Replies to “‘Complicating Things with Fancy Footwork’: The Ethics of Difficulty in Anna Burns’ “Milkman””

  1. I just finished reading Milkman. Like usual, I seek reviews to better appreciate what I have read. Your review was lovely and insightful. I really loved this book; listened to it as an audiobook – the Irish narrator did a tremendous job with the intricate prose. Anyway, thank you for helping me get more out of Milkman.

  2. I’m not terribly literary, but I did not find Milkman to be difficult–it was a pleasure to read (if that can be said given the intensity of the subject), and middle sister’s insights and digressions are always intelligible and accessible, and funny. So I’m not sure this review does the book any favors by being on the defensive about its so-called difficulty. It was hard to put down, and then only to absorb the meaning and import of the events and her comments about them. It’s too bad the book has that reputation, and while I appreciate that the review attempts to counter that view, it might have begun, Despite what you may have heard, this book is eminently readable. That said, I will probably go back and read it again, in the spirit of “re-reading and revising”.

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