By Prarthana Mitra
Third time’s the charm for Anna Burns, who became the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. The 56-year-old has written two novels prior to this, namely Little Constructions and No Bones which had been shortlisted for Orange Prize. On Tuesday, October 16, she collected the prestigious award which includes a cash prize of £50,000 at the lavish ceremony in London.
Writing about a “hair-trigger society”
In a tight call, Burns beat heavyweights including Richard Powers and Esi Edugyan by the virtue of an “incredibly original and utterly distinctive” narrative set in an unnamed city, ostensibly Belfast, capturing the challenges growing up during the Troubles era of the 1970s.
The storyline of what is a very dark and experimental literary work deals with the harassment of an 18-year-old girl referred to as middle sister and attributed by a bookishness, in the hands of a paramilitary predatory figure called the milkman. The latter half of the novel, scheduled to release in bookstores on December 11, deals with how she rises against the pervasive powers of patriarchy during a turbulent time.
Registering a surprise win, Burns said in an interview posted by the Booker Prize foundation that Milkman was inspired by her own experience. “I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could,” she said in an interview after the announcement.
Writer and readers respond
Her novel also attempts to present the madness of normalising longterm violence, while the lack of names (persons and places) gives it an almost dystopian, futuristic quality, even draws parallels with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from young readers. It is a politically relevant novel at this juncture in European history when Brexit and #MeToo are immensely topical.
“It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour,” the Booker committee said in its announcement speech. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah who chaired the jury gave away the prize on Tuesday before adding with a note of finality, “None of us has ever read anything like this before.”
Burns herself has been through painful surgeries, taking up odd jobs to make ends meet and drawing from all these experiences while writing the novel. After facing rejections from countless publishers, the Booker win is, without doubt, a special personal victory for Burns.
“I think: ‘How do I move on?’ The Troubles is such an enormous, immense occurrence in my life, and in other people’s lives, that it demands to be written about. Why should I apologise for it? It is a very rich, complex society in which to place a fiction,” she told The Guardian in an interview.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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