A distinctly Irish novel Milkman by Anna Burns is a darkly mirthful satire that tells the story of Belfast and its particular sins. Anna is the first Northern Irish author to win the prestigious Man Booker prize for this ‘darkly funny novel’ that leaves words ominously unspoken.
As the Irish Indenpendent puts it, “From the outset, Milkman is delivered in a breathless, hectic, glorious torrent. The pace doesn’t let up for a single moment.... Milkman can sometimes feel like a nerve-jangling reading experience; exhausting, even”.
“This is a book about names and identity. The wrong boy names with their hint of “over the water” can get you bashed, the wrong girl names will just get you dirty looks. Girls are lesser creatures and girls stories are lesser stories”, adds the review in the Irish newspaper.
The experimental novel, Burns’ third, is narrated by an unnamed 18-year-old girl, known as “middle sister”, who is being pursued by a much older paramilitary figure, the milkman. It is “incredibly original”, according to the Booker’s chair of judges, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Guardian reported.
Anna Burns is part of a movement of new and established female Belfast writers who are correcting that impression along with Lucy Caldwell, Roisín O’Donnell, Jan Carson and others.
“None of us has ever read anything like this before,” said Appiah, announcing the win at a dinner at London’s Guildhall.
“Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour.”
Written in lengthy blocks of paragraphs, eschewing character names for descriptions, Appiah admitted that Milkman could be seen as “challenging, but in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top,” he said.
“I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard. And it is enormously rewarding if you persist with it. Because of the flow of the language and the fact some of the language is unfamiliar, it is not a light read (but) I think it is going to last.”
The win makes the 56-year-old author the first Northern Irish winner — previous Irish winners, including John Banville, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle, all come from the Irish Republic. It also makes her the first female winner since 2012, when Hilary Mantel took the award with Bring Up the Bodies.
Burns beat writers including American literary heavyweight Richard Powers, Daisy Johnson, at 27 the youngest author ever to be shortlisted for the award, and Canadian Esi Edugyan.
According to Appiah, the judges, picking from a shortlist that delved into some dark themes, were “unanimous” in their choice of winner — and not influenced by concerns that picking a third American winner in a row could cause controversy.
Burns, who was born in Belfast and now lives in East Sussex, drew on her own experiences growing up in what she called “a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia”. As the milkman presses his advances on the reluctant middle sister, rumours begin that she is having an affair with him.
“But I had not been having an affair with the milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me,” Burns’s narrator tells us.
“I don’t know whose milkman he was. He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him. He didn’t ever deliver milk.”
Milkman also spoke to the concerns of today, he said. “I think this novel will help people think about #MeToo ... It is to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle and morally and intellectually challenging picture of what #MeToo is about.”
Burns, who has previously been shortlisted for the Orange prize, revealed in the Guardian last week that Milkman has its origins in “a few hundred words that were superfluous in a novel I was currently writing”. She tried to craft a short story from them, and they turned in to Milkman.
Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.
“The book didn’t work with names. It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser — or perhaps just a different — book. 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. Sometimes the book threw them out itself,” she said.