Books 17 October 2018 | 6:14

Anna Burns makes history with Man Booker Prize win

17 October 2018 06:14

Last night, Anna Burns became the first ever Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize in the award’s fifty-year history. Milkman, Burns’ third novel, is set during the Troubles, the action that plays out therein seen though the eyes of an eighteen-year-old girl – ‘middle sister’ – who finds herself being pursued by a sinister paramilitary figure, a much older man known only as ‘the milkman’. This isn’t the first time Burns has made Northern Ireland’s difficult history the subject of her work, her 2002 novel No Bones – which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize – also dealt with the Troubles, and she has a rare gift for evoking the singular strangeness of a community under siege; the trepidation and fear, silence and deafness that living life like this entails.

Announcing the win at the dinner at London’s Guildhall, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah – the chair of this year’s judges – told the assembled audience that neither he nor his peers had read anything quite like the novel before: ‘Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose,’ he said. ‘It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour.’

Needless to say, Burns was not the bookie’s bet, but they always seem to be terrible at predicting the winner! This year’s favourite was Richard Powers with The Overstory, though if had he scooped the award, he would have been the third American in as many years to do so – George Saunders won last year for Lincoln in the Bardo, and the year before that Paul Beatty’s The Sellout came out on top – something that many in the industry have expressed concern about. In 2014, the prize changed its rules to allow American entries, and this is still a bone of contention with some traditionalists who argue that the result of which has been an American invasion, and one that’s pushed out English and Commonwealth writers in the process.

It’s also worth noting that this is Milkman’s publisher Faber & Faber’s first win in fifteen years – they last nabbed the prestigious accolade when DBC Pierre was awarded it in 2003 for Vernon God Little – so there’s sure to be celebration there aplenty. It always feels like an extra achievement when a smaller, independent publisher brings home a big literary prize like this – not only is it testament to the quality of their books, but for the smaller houses, the financial impact is huge since a Booker win really does translate into notably increased sales figures.