“Milkman” by writer Anna Burns bagged the 2018 Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, with the Northern Irish writer winning the literary award for her third full-length novel.
Set in an unnamed city during the bloody “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, the “Milkman” tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl’s affair with an older man. The experimental novel is narrated by an unnamed 18-year-old girl, known as “middle sister”, who is being pursued by a much older paramilitary figure, the milkman.
“None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose,” philosopher and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah, who chaired the prize’s panel of judges, said in a statement.
“It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humor. Set in a society divided against itself, ‘Milkman’ explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.”
Written in lengthy blocks of paragraphs, eschewing character names for descriptions, Appiah admitted that Milkman could be seen as “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,” he said. “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard. And it is enormously rewarding if you persist with it. Because of the flow of the language and the fact some of the languages is unfamiliar, it is not a light read [but] I think it is going to last.”
“Milkman” was published in Britain in May by Faber & Faber, and the independent publisher Graywolf Press will release the novel in the United States in December. In a review for The Guardian, the novelist Claire Kilroy called the novel’s narrator, and the book itself, “original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique.”
As the winner, the 56-year-old writer, who was born in Belfast, received the award from Prince Charles’ wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as 50,000 pounds ($65,900)
As the award was announced, Burns was lost for words. At the press conference afterward, the said her job as a novelist was “to show up and be present and attend. It’s a waiting process.” She “just had to wait for my characters to tell me their stories”.
Asked about how she had filled the long gap since her 2002 Orange prize listing for No Bones, she said she had done commercial events and moved houses. What will she do with the money? “I’ll clear my debts and live on what’s left.”
The win makes Burns the first Northern Irish winner – previous Irish winners, including John Banville, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle, all come from the republic. It also makes her the first female winner since 2013, when Eleanor Catton took the award with The Luminaries.
Burns beat writers including the American literary heavyweight Richard Powers, Daisy Johnson, at 27 the youngest author ever to be shortlisted for the award, and the Canadian writer Esi Edugyan. According to Appiah, the judges, picking from a shortlist that delved into some dark themes, were “unanimous” in their choice of winner – and not influenced by concerns that picking a third American winner in a row could cause controversy. This year’s shortlist was made up of writers from the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Established in 1969, the annual literary prize recognizes the judges choice of “the best original novel written in English and published in the UK”.