Anna Burns has become the first Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize with her novel Milkman (Faber & Faber), a book about the sexual harassment of a young woman, commended by the judges for its “distinctive voice” and for being at once “particular and brilliantly universal”.
Burns claimed the £50,000 prize at the award ceremony at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday evening (16th October).
The book, “a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness”, is written from the perspective of a young woman struggling to eschew the unwelcome advances of “the milkman”, a paramilitary predator taking advantage of his power in a divided society recognisable as Belfast during the Troubles.
Praising Burns’ first-person narrative, which ignores standard practices of paragraphing to more closely emulate speech, chair of the judges Kwame Anthony Appiah said he had “never heard a voice like it”, calling it “a completely distinctive voice” written in “language worth savouring”.
While conceding Burns’ book was “not a light read”, Appiah said it was “a powerful novel about the danger of rumour” and “to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle, unpolemical and challenging ... picture of something that is part of what the MeToo movement is about”. He said it was worth readers persevering with, calling it “challenging in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging” and, ultimately, “intensely rewarding”.
The judges’ decision was unanimous, he confirmed, describing it a “collective choice” arrived on naturally without the necessity of a vote.
Burns, 56, was born in Belfast and is now based in East Sussex. Prior to writing Milkman, she had published two previous novels, No Bones (Flamingo) and Little Constructions (Fourth Estate), the former of which was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Asked whether shortlisted authors’ gender or nationality had entered into deliberations at all - notably since either Rachel Kushner or Richard Powers winning would have heralded the third win by an American since the rule change in 2014 - Appiah confirmed emphatically that it hadn't. “It absolutely did not,” he said. “I wish we had been able to [pick a US author], because I’m so fed up of that conversation.”
As to whether Burns’ novel could be “the first #MeToo Booker”, he reflected further: “Novels are never about one thing. They’re never about two things. They’re never about three things. Novels, especially those worth reading three times, are about lots and lots of things that on different readings come to the foreground. I think this novel will help people to think about MeToo, and I like novels that help people think about current movements and challenges - but we think it will last and that means it’s not just about something that is going on in this moment. That said, the novel is to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle and unpolemical and challenging - intellectually and morally - picture of something that is part of what the MeToo movement in this country is about.”
Burns triumphed over the bookies’ favourite, 27-year-old Daisy Johnson, in the running for her debut novel, Sophoclean melodrama Everything Under (Jonathan Cape), as well as American writers Kushner and Powers, respectively up for the prize for The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape), a bleak portrait of life in a woman’s prison, and eco-epic The Overstory (William Heinemann). Her novel also beat Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s tale of slavery and hot-air ballooning, Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail) and Jonathan Cape publisher Robin Robertson’s debut The Long Take (Picador), Man Booker’s first shortlisted novel in verse.
Meanwhile both Prize director Gaby Wood and Man Group c.e.o. Luke Ellis continued to defend the decision to include US authors in eligibility for the Man Booker, and to scotch rumours that Man had been behind the change, after a year that has seen growing consternation among UK publishers.
Speaking from the stage at the ceremony, Ellis struck a defiant tone: “We didn’t play any part in the Foundation’s decision to open up the prize to all novels published in English, but we supported that decision, once made, and we continue to support it now.
"It is striking that this conversation of inclusion feels like it has gained traction at a time when so much of the political and economic landscape is dominated by questions of borders and boundaries and self. We believe the people who will flourish most in the 21st century will be those who are globally at home, not just in the place they hail from.”
At the press conference following the announcement of the prize, Wood said the “conversation” with publishers was going, but described the recent meeting with publishers held at Quo Vadis as having been “mis-reported” in the media. “We respect everyone's views, and therefore I hope the conversation will continue, and not be a reactive one, but an ongoing intelligent discussion that we can be part of.”