Anna Burns has become the first Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize. On Tuesday 16th, she accepted the £50,000 award for her novel Milkman.
Milkman, Burns’ third novel, has been praised for its “utterly distinctive voice [which] challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, Chair of the judges, went on to say that Milkman “is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.”
By winning the 50th Man Booker Prize, Burns became the 17th woman to claim the prize since it began in 1969.
Burns was born in Belfast and lives in East Sussex. Milkman draws on her experience of living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It’s a time that Burns has explored throughout her writing — her first novel, No Bones, was similarly set in Northern Ireland in a time of violence.
While the context of the Troubles is key to the novel, it is actually set in an unnamed city and filled with unnamed characters. In an interview for the Man Booker Prize website, she noted that “the book didn’t work with names. It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser — or perhaps just different — book. In the early days I tried out names a few times, but the book wouldn’t stand for it. The narrative would become heavy and lifeless and refuse to move on until I took them out again.”
The competition this year was particularly strong, with Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Robin Robertson’s The Long Take all shortlisted.
While it is set in the past, Milkman is particularly timely in the era of #MeToo as it focuses on a young woman who is sexually harassed by a powerful man. Appiah, speaking at the Guildhall in London, said the novel “is to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #Metoo is about”.
But it’s not just the subject matter that makes Milkman a difficult read. There are few paragraph breaks and the experimental style can make it challenging, but Appiah said that it can be “challenging, but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”
Anna Burns has certainly reached a new peak in her career and said she’ll use the money to “clear [her] debts and live on what’s left”. Let’s hope she does a little more writing too.