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Man Booker Prize 2018: A year of surprises

'Milkman' by Irish author Anna Burns picked up the 50,000 award this year

Irish writer Anna Burns took home the £50,000 prize for her third novel, ‘Milkman’. Photo: AFP
Irish writer Anna Burns took home the £50,000 prize for her third novel, ‘Milkman’. Photo: AFP

A novel about the 30-year-old revolution in Ireland, a period that is popularly referred to as the ‘Troubles’, having thematic resonances with the ongoing #MeToo moment across the world, won the Man Booker Prize 2018.

Irish writer Anna Burns took home the £50,000 prize for her third novel, Milkman, which was praised for its difficult, though riveting, narrative style. The chairman of the jury, philosopher Kwam Anthony Appiah compared the experience of reading the book to climbing a mountain. “It is definitely worth (persisting with it) because the view is terrific when you get to the top," he said in a statement shortly after the prize was announced. Burns is the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the prestigious award.

Milkman tells the story of an 18-year-old unnamed girl (none of the characters in the book is given a name) living during the Troubles, although she has no interest in politics whatsoever. Early on she announces her daily routine of walking home while reading her “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." The steady rhythm of her life isn’t violated so much by the war that wages around her as by the advances made by the Milkman, a paramilitary figure.

The Milkman’s relentless pursuit of her has the touch of a surreal nightmare. He threatens to kill her boyfriend, messes with her head, but doesn’t physically violate her. His approach leaves her in a quandary, especially in a society that believes “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 ... how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?"

Written in a style described by critics as “boldly experimental", Milkman dispenses with the trappings of conventional formatting, such as the use of paragraphs. Its preoccupation with sexual predation also has a strong currency in the unfolding #MeToo movement. But for all its praise (the jury chose the novel unanimously, calling it “incredibly original"), Milkman was a low-key entry to the prize this year.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People, widely hailed as one of the best novels about the millennial generation, was the hot favourite among the bookies until the longlist. After Rooney failed to make it to the last five, bets were put on 27-year-old Daisy Johnson, the youngest contender for the honours, for her debut novel, Everything Under. The bestseller among the titles in the shortlist, having sold 5,200 copies according to the Guardian, Johnson’s book was trumped by Milkman, which has sold 400 copies less than it, until the prize was announced.

Since 2014, as the Man Booker Prize was opened out to all English-language writers of original fiction, concerns have been raised about the infiltration of the long- and shortlists by Americans. There were fears that widening the ambit of the prize may end up diluting its quality, which would be put to rest by this year’s selection. For not only is Milkman a difficult work of fiction, it isn’t likely to fly off the shelves ahead of the upcoming festive season. By choosing Burns over the more popular entries for the prize, the jury seems to have sent out a provocative signal to the publishing industry to rethink its attitude to promoting books that don’t necessarily set the cash registers ringing.

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