By Anna Burns, Faber, 368 pages, £8.99
The Man Booker has got itself in a frightful twist. In 2013, it was announced that the prize, previously open to UK, Irish and Commonwealth writers only, would widen its remit to include any authors writing in English. Senior British novelists protested, and rightly so. It wasn’t hard to foresee what would happen when the juggernaut of US creative writing was allowed to bear down on a Morris Minor. Since then, two Americans have won (Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings and George Sanders for Lincoln in the Bardo) while the longlist and the shortlist are jam-packed with US novelists.
Two Americans were on this year’s shortlist — Rachel Kushner for The Mars Room, a punchily brilliant account of life inside a women’s prison, and Richard Powers for The Overstory, a densely branched eco epic that was the bookies’ favourite. But it couldn’t win, and neither could Kushner. Even if either had been a worthy victor, that would have sent the wrong message for a prize that now has to fend off accusations of American dominance.
As a result of the above car crash, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker was Milkman by Anna Burns, the first Northern Irish writer to take the prize. Milkman is the oddest, most impenetrable choice since Keri Hulme’s The Bone People in 1985. Not only is it not the best book on the shortlist, it’s not even the best book on the longlist where Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight cast its spectral magic and Sally Rooney’s Normal People told a love story that had critics swooning.
Set in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, Burns’s experimental novel is narrated by an 18-year-old girl who finds herself pursued by a sinister, much older, paramilitary figure — the Milkman of the title. Burns writes in long, stream-of-consciousness paragraphs and there are no names to help the reader navigate or get their bearings. Our narrator is known as “middle sister”; other characters are “third brother-in-law” or “first brother-in-law”(good luck with telling the difference) and there is the welcome, chirpy presence of car-obsessed “maybe-boyfriend”.
Chairman of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, said: “None of us has ever read anything like it before.” Which is strange as you would hope those paid to assess one of the world’s biggest literary prizes would have a working knowledge of two other rather well-known Irish writers, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Burns certainly belongs in the school of Joyce and Beckett, although not yet in their class. You might say “middle sister” is Molly Bloom with bombs.
I consider myself to be a rather good and passionate reader, but Milkman is undeniably hard work. Appiah acknowledged as much when he admitted the book is a challenge, “but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging”. You can’t see that appearing on one of those staff endorsement cards in Waterstone’s, can you? “Really quite enjoyable if you like ascending a Welsh mountain in driving rain and mist. Pack a kagoule and Kendal Mint Cake!” Pity the poor booksellers.
Appiah’s contention that Milkman “is enormously rewarding if you persist with it” sounds more like homework than literature. You shouldn’t need to persist with a great book; you shouldn’t be able to put it down. As for his suggestion that it might be helpful to sing some of the paragraphs aloud... really? I don’t purchase a novel to do my own audio-book, thanks. The language should make its own music as Roddy Doyle did in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, his glorious Booker winner of 1993. Like Burns, Doyle was working in the headlong, harum-scarum humour of Irish vernacular, but he opened up that world to outsiders, welcoming us in with a helpless generosity. Milkman, too, has wonderful shafts of wit, as when our heroine (God, I wish she had a name!) is mulling over moving in with “maybe-boyfriend”. “If we were in a proper relationship and I did live with him and was officially committed to him, first thing I would have to do is leave.” Too often, though, the scintillating observations are muffled by the engulfing blanket of words.
Burns is at her best when she is clearest. The book tells you everything you need to know about what it’s like to be “brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were — if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there?”
Paranoia was the air they breathed in Belfast back then, when Burns herself was growing up in the Ardoyne area. In one superb scene early on, “maybe-boyfriend” is cock-a-hoop at getting hold of rare parts from a Blower Bentley, which are laid out on his living room floor. As the neighbours turn up to witness this treasure for themselves, the mood is curdled by one visitor who snarkily wonders who got another part of the classic car, “the bit with that flag on”. In a viciously tribal society, where giving your baby the wrong name could lead to a knock on the door from men in balaclavas, being in possession of a car part that didn’t have a Union flag on, but which might have had that flag “from over the water”, is enough to create an ominous atmosphere.
Even the blameless-sounding Milkman is a dark joke: the IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk-crates to doors at the corner of every street. The way the enforcer insinuates himself horribly into the young woman’s life, the way she is powerless in that ultra-masculine world, unable to tell him to go away, feels all too pertinent in the era of #MeToo.
Our narrator hides from this treacherous, unstable world, taking refuge in great novels. “I preferred to walk home reading my latest book... this would be a 19th-century book because I did not like 20th-century books because I did not like the 20th century.” One of her favourites is by Laurence Sterne, another novelist from Ireland who produced a singular novel of surreal genius that was out of its time, but will last forever.
Milkman is no Tristram Shandy, although its author shares many of Sterne’s startling gifts. One day Burns may well write a great comic novel that will find a huge readership.
This year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize is, sadly, not it.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018