Author Anna Burns wins the Man Booker Prize for Milkman.
It’s been five years since a female author took home the prestigious Man Booker Prize. But last night (Tuesday 16 October) author Anna Burns became the 17th woman to win in the Man Booker’s 49-year history, and the first-ever Northern Irish writer to scoop the accolade, too.
An unnamed 18 year-old girl, who is being sexually harassed by a powerful man (known as the Milkman), during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, narrates the timely novel.
“None of us has ever read anything like this before,” said the Booker’s chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, announcing the win at a dinner at London’s Guildhall. “Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour.”
The novel unfolds in an unnamed city during the Troubles. Refraining from using names appears to be a common characteristic of the novel. Instead, characters are given labels such as maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody and wee sisters.
“The book didn’t work with names,” Burns said in an interview for the Man Booker Prize website. “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.”
Burns, who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and now lives south of London, has published two previous novels and a novella. Milkman was published in the UK earlier this year.
Burns beat writers including American Richard Powers, Daisy Johnson, at 27 the youngest author ever to be shortlisted for the award, and Canadian Esi Edugyan. However, the judges were “unanimous” in their decision.
Appiah said: “This woman living in a divided society is harassed by a man who is sexually interested in her. He is taking advantage of the divisions in society to use the power he has because of the divisions, to go after her. Sectarianism and divisions in Ireland play an enormous role in the novel [but] Northern Ireland is not the only place in the world with a divided society … TS Eliot said you can’t be universal without being particular, and this is particular but brilliantly universal as well.”
Milkman also spoke to the concerns of today, he said. “I think this novel will help people think about #MeToo … It is to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #MeToo is about.”
Many of the novels selected for this year’s prizes dealt with dark times and apocalyptic themes.
“What I write about is absolutely and essentially interested in how power is used, both in a personal and in a societal sense,” Burns said in an interview with the Times.
First awarded in 1969, the Booker is one of the literary world’s most prestigious and lucrative prizes, which is why Burns takes home a sum of £50,000. Previous winners have typically seen a rise in book sales, too.
“We picked the book that is most deserving of the prize,” Appiah said at a news conference. “She’s an extremely interesting voice, she’s witty and the way you hear her voice in your head, I think you’ve never heard a voice like it before.”
You can read here the other female authors who were longlisted for the prestigious prize.