London: Anna Burns won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for her novel “Milkman,” which is narrated by an unnamed 18-year-old girl living in 1970s Northern Ireland who is coerced into a relationship with a mysterious older married man with ties to a paramilitary group.
The Booker’s judges cited Burns’ use of dark humour to explore weighty themes like the perils of tribalism, state-sponsored terrorism, social division and the ways that sexual and political oppression often overlap.
“None of us had ever read anything like this before,” the writer and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of this year’s judges, said in a statement. “It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour.”
The novel unfolds in an unnamed city during “the Troubles,” a prolonged civil conflict in Northern Ireland that gave rise to sectarian violence and guerrilla warfare. Against the background of this turbulent epoch, with the constant threat of car bombs and riots, the narrator deals with a menacing stalker, who is known only as Milkman, though he doesn’t deliver milk.
None of the characters have names — they are labelled instead, as longest friend, maybe-boyfriend, wee sisters, Somebody McSomebody. “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.”
“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.”
Burns, 56, who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and now lives south of London, is the first Northern Irish writer to win the Booker in the prize’s history. She has published two previous novels and a novella; her first novel, “No Bones,” which also takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction.
“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 Literary Supplement.
Burns, while well regarded in Britain, was a somewhat surprising choice, beating out more prominent writers like Rachel Kushner and Richard Powers, and a splashy debut by Daisy Johnson, who at 27 would have been the youngest person to win the prize.
The novels selected for this year’s shortlist reflected a preoccupation with dark times and apocalyptic themes like ecological destruction, slavery and mass incarceration. Finalists included the Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black,” about a boy who flees a slave plantation in Barbados and becomes an apprentice of sorts to his master’s adventurous brother; Kushner’s “The Mars Room,” set in a women’s prison in California; and Powers’ inventive environmental epic “The Overstory,” about a quest to save one of the world’s last areas of virgin forest, in which the trees are the novel’s real protagonists.
Judges also recognised unconventional literary forms this year, including, for the first time, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso, titled “Sabrina,” which made the longlist but was not among the finalists. “The Long Take,” a genre-defying noir-tinged novel in verse by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson that unfolds in verse, prose and photographs, made the shortlist.
First awarded in 1969, the Booker is one of the literary world’s most prestigious and lucrative prizes. The winner receives 50,000 pounds, or about (Dh238,745; $65,000, and typically sees a big boost in book sales. Past winners include such literary titans as Kazuo Ishiguro; Ben Okri; Hilary Mantel, who won twice; and Michael Ondaatje, who was longlisted this year.
In 2014, the prize was opened to any novel written in English and published in Britain (it was previously limited to writers from Britain, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Commonwealth countries), and some prominent writers have argued that the rules change has diluted the impact of the prize.
Fears that the Booker would become “Americanised” were born out to a degree in recent years, after the prize went to American authors for two consecutive years — to George Saunders in 2017, for “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and to Paul Beatty in 2016, for “The Sellout.” Earlier this year, the Rathbones Folio Academy, a literary society with prominent members such as Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey, insisted that the change be reversed.
This year’s crop of finalists included two American novelists, three writers from the United Kingdom and one from Canada.
Criticism that the prize has lost its British character may be dampened by the selection of Burns, who is a well established literary voice in the United Kingdom but is not widely known to the rest of the world. Appiah said the judges didn’t take the author’s gender or nationality into account when selecting the winner.
“We picked the book that is most deserving of the prize,” he 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.”
— New York Times News Service