Anna Burns won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction on Tuesday with Milkman, a vibrant, violent story about men, women, conflict and power set during Northern Ireland’s years of Catholic-Protestant violence (1968-1998).
Burns, 56, is the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the £50,000 (RM270,000) prize, which is open to English-language authors from around the world. She is also the first woman in five years to win the Booker after Eleanor Catton became the youngest winner, at the age of 28, in 2013.
Milkman is narrated by a young woman dealing with an older man who uses family ties, social pressure and political loyalties as weapons of sexual coercion and harassment. It is set in the 1970s, but was published amid the global eruption of sexual misconduct allegations that sparked the #MeToo movement.
“I think this novel will help people to think about #MeToo, and I like novels that help people think about current movements and challenges,” said philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, 64, who chaired the judging panel.
“But we think it’ll last – it’s not just about something that’s going on in this moment.
The judges had never read anything like it before, he said, adding that Burns’ “utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose”.
Though set in an unnamed city, Milkman undoubtedly drew on the author’s experiences growing up in the Northern Irish capital Belfast for this exploration of the city’s three decades of sectarian violence told through the voice of a young woman.
“From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world – threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads – while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman,” Appiah said.
“The novel delineates brilliantly the power of gossip and social pressure in a tight-knit community, and shows how both rumour and political loyalties can be put in the service of a relentless campaign of individual sexual harassment.
“Yet this is never a novel about just one place or time,” he said. “The local is in service to an exploration of the universal experience of societies in crisis.”
Milkman appears on the printed page as a continuous torrent with few paragraph marks, which has led some to label it experimental and challenging. But Appiah said the vivid, distinctive Belfast language in Burns’ book was “really worth savouring”.
“If you’re having difficulty, try reading it out loud,” he said.
“The pleasure of it really has to do with the way that it sounds.
“It’s challenging in the way a walk up (Mount) Snowdon (in Wales) is challenging. It’s definitely worth it, because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”
Burns beat five other novelists, including the bookies’ favourites: American writer Richard Powers’ tree-centric eco-epic The Overstory and Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, the story of a slave who escapes from a plantation in a hot-air balloon.
The other finalists were US novelist Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, set in a women’s prison; Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, a verse novel about a traumatised D-Day veteran; and 27-year-old British author Daisy Johnson’s Greek tragedy-inspired family saga Everything Under.
Founded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize was originally open only to British, Irish and Common-wealth writers. Americans have been eligible since 2014, and there have been two American winners – Paul Beatty’s The Sellout in 2016 and George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo in 2017.
A third consecutive American victor would have revived fears among some British writers and publishers that the prize is becoming too US-centric.
But Appiah said neither the nationality nor the gender of the authors was a factor in the judges’ deliberations on the shortlist of four female authors and two men.
“If we had been drifting towards thinking that one of the men on the list was the best one, I wouldn’t have said, ‘No guys, we’re going to get in trouble for this’ any more than if we’d been drifting towards an American,” he said.
“We picked the one … most deserving of the prize.”
The Man Booker has a reputation for transforming writers’ careers, and the one who will emerge from the field to beat other finalists is always subject to intense speculation and lively betting. Previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy and Hilary Mantel.
It’s likely to bring a big boost to Burns, who has two previous published novels – No Bones (2001) and Little Constructions (2007) – but is hardly a household name. Purchases of last year’s winner, Lincoln In The Bardo, jumped 1,227% in the week after Saunders claimed the award, with nearly three-quarters of its sales following the win, according to prize organisers. – Agencies