A dark comedy novel about life in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, “Milkman” by Anna Burns, has won the internationally coveted Man Booker literary prize.
Belfast born Anna Burns, beat off shortlisted novelists including Daisy Johnson (27) and her book “Everything Under”, the youngest author ever to be shortlisted. Burns, the first Northern Irish women to win the award walks away with a prize of $56,800 (£56k).
However, the prize is so prestigious that it means massive opportunity in the literary world and a guaranteed huge best seller.
“Milkman” tells the tale of a teenage girl’s encounters with an older man, a senior figure in a paramilitary organization. As the Man Booker Prize site puts it “don’t expect a dry slice of political history. In the book itself the Troubles aren’t mentioned by name, nor is Belfast, nor is Northern Ireland, indeed the characters themselves don’t have names merely designations, such as the “Milkman” of the title.”
The Chair of the Man Booker judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, said “Milkman” “is about what happens in sectarian societies and divided societies are everywhere in the modern world.”
The organization states:
“The story concerns a bookish young woman growing up in a city rife with factions who is pressurized by an older, more powerful man with an unsettling sexual interest in her and tormented by the vicious tongues of her neighbors. It is about the misuse of power and about the pernicious effects of gossip and rumor. The moral framework of the novel, however, is not the main reason Milkman was chosen as the winner: it is because of Burns’ narrative voice.”
“It is an amazing voice”, said Appiah. He added that Burns “uses language in a way you haven’t heard before.”
The central character is utterly distinctive: “You hear her voice in your head and you’ve never heard one like it before.”
The book has few paragraphs and relishes the vernacular, so Appiah found himself reading it out loud (in private, he stressed, not least because “I have a very bad Irish accent”). While it might not look like a traditional novel on the page it does replicate how the human voice works and that is quite an achievement.
Burns herself has suggested, somewhat playfully but perhaps not entirely, that she is merely an elevated conduit, the instrument through which her characters express themselves.
The Belfast author said:
“The characters. They come. Usually. Unless I’m being seriously desperate and grabby and controlling and fearful and, in a hurry, and showing it. They don’t like that. I don’t blame them. Also, they would be astonished, then amused, if they thought they were to show only for me to give them instructions.”
Speaking about selecting the Northern Irish author’s selection, Appiah said:
“The pleasure is in the way it sounds. I have read it three times and I will listen to it on audiobook when it becomes available. It is a novel that rewards listening as well as reading.”
“Rewarding” is, he thinks, the novel’s strong point. It is “deep, subtle, unpolemical and yes, challenging – challenging in the way that walking up Snowdon is challenging but you get a great view at the top.”
The decision, he stressed, was unanimous. Indeed, Appiah and his fellow judges – Val McDermid, Leo Robson, Leanne Shapton and Jacqueline Rose – didn’t even come to a vote. They had each prepared a ranked list, but they were never called on.
Burns is the 17th female winner in the prize’s history and the first Northern Irish writer to win – indeed, although “Milkman” is her third novel, this is her first major prize.
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Here the Man Booker judges speak about their decision: