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Harassment and Linguistic Inquiry in Milkman: Ploughshares

Anna Burns’s Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, centers on unwanted sexual attention in an environment where safety is already not only unlikely, but impossible. The protagonist, known only as “middle sister,” is an eighteen-year-old girl living in 1970s Northern Ireland. Suddenly, a middle-aged paramilitary fighter known as Milkman is drawn to her.

Alongside the insidious impact of Milkman’s piecemeal harassment and Burns’s study of unshakable tribalism, the novel is shot through with a vein of linguistic inquiry. The inner life of this young woman is marked by quick, deft acts of poeticization wherein words are pushed to their eventual—simultaneously organic and incongruous—conclusion. The pleasure of the book stems largely from the intuitive rightness to the prose’s grammatical wrongness.

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Sue Rainsford