This book is why I read fiction. It's a challenging read but stick with it if you are interested in learning how individuals respond psychologically to an essentially insane environment like Belfast in the 1970's at the height of the 'Troubles'. The narrator escapes as best she can by reading only 17th, 18th and 19th century novels and is stubborn about doing her reading while walking to and from her courses and her job, head down, desperate to be oblivious and unnoticed. But this odd behaviour puts her "beyond the pale" which is the term applied not to Jewish farming settlements behind palings (fences) in Russia. Here it means she has joined other mentally ill suspects in the hard-scrabble Catholic neighbourhood who cannot be persuaded to stop their obsessive activities. And who decides what's normal when people (and family pets, erstwhile watch-dogs, which was particularly heart-rending to animal lovers like me) are being blown up and shot and otherwise murdered by the dozens every year?
The rosary-clacking under-educated pious women of course, colossal gossips, the lot of them, who watch everyone else, speculate as to motives and judge mightily, whose own pinched and constrained lives inevitably lead to malicious envy should another girl or woman shine (shining being the term for people who persist in believing in the beauty of sunsets, in being kind and helpful and brave as well in the face of the self-appointed renouncers and the paramilitary). Burns' great gift is to gabble away in that interior monologue which is so particularly Irish, with that over-the-top wonderful use of the English language, to reel us in and get us onside, fuming along with her about the curse of the gossips and then to show us these same women, fed-up with the deadly forays of the renouncers and the enemy paramilitary both murdering unarmed bystanders and taking to the streets beating the lids of pots and pans with kitchen spoons, shaming them outside their clubhouses or their guard posts.
The feeling of being trapped in this neighbourhood, of being watched and evaluated, of sibling rivalry and maternal disapproval, of being associated with your family for good and for ill, is exacerbated for our narrator when she attracts the unwelcome attentions of a man in a white van, the titular Milkman who is not the real milkman at all. This stalker is determined to make her, an 18 year old, his girlfriend. He knows almost everything about her daily activities and makes sure she knows he knows. The tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels. Her response to this additional insanity in her life is to numb herself, to become expressionless. She guards her facial expressions as much as she guards her private thoughts from the intrusive watchers in her world, but they have immediately noticed the Milkman and begin fabricating a whole new life for her. It never stops, the gossip, which changes how others treat her but she is desperate to keep this persistent suitor at bay.
The insights of this terrified teenager, her often humorous observations of people's behaviour (gift-wrapping potatoes for a beau), despite the bleak political situation, and the brilliant use of language, structure and pacing makes this book an incredibly rewarding reading experience. She takes big risks with her writing strategies, eg. to eschew names for all her characters except one near-mythic beautiful woman who joined the nunnery, and to assign them roles instead (almost-boyfriend, real milkman, the wee sisters, tablet girl) which will predictably trigger a chorus of wails from those readers whose heads hurt if things are too different, too unpredictable. But for everyone who loves truly original writing, with enough menace to keep the pages flapping, this book is hugely rewarding.