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Milkman delivers

Milkman delivers

Anna Burns’ Milkman, the novel that has just been anointed the 2018 Man Booker Prize winner, is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles but don’t expect a dry slice of political history. In the book itself the Troubles aren’t mentioned by name, nor is Belfast, nor is Northern Ireland, indeed the characters themselves don’t have names merely designations, such as the “Milkman” of the title. The book, as the chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah says, is about what happens in sectarian societies and divided societies are everywhere in the modern world.


The story concerns a bookish young woman growing up in a city rife with factions who is pressurised by an older, more powerful man with an unsettling sexual interest in her, and tormented by the vicious tongues of her neighbours. It is about the misuse of power and about the pernicious effects of gossip and rumour. The moral framework of the novel, however, is not the main reason Milkman was chosen as the winner: it is because of Burns’ narrative voice. “It is an amazing voice”, said Appiah, Burns “uses language in a way you haven’t heard before”. The central character is utterly distinctive: “You hear her voice in your head and you’ve never heard one like it before.” The book has few paragraphs and relishes the vernacular so Appiah found himself reading it out loud (in private, he stressed, not least because “I have a very bad Irish accent”). While it might not look like a traditional novel on the page it does replicate how the human voice works and that is quite an achievement.


Burns herself has suggested, somewhat playfully but perhaps not entirely, that she is merely an elevated conduit, the instrument through which her characters express themselves. “The characters. They come. Usually. Unless I’m being seriously desperate and grabby and controlling and fearful and in a hurry and showing it. They don’t like that. I don’t blame them. Also, they would be astonished, then amused, if they thought they were to show only for me to give them instructions.”


Like last year’s winner, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, this is a very vocal book. As Appiah said: “The pleasure is in the way it sounds. I have read it three times and I will listen to it on audiobook when it becomes available. It is a novel that rewards listening as well as reading.” “Rewarding” is, he thinks, the novel’s strong point. It is “deep, subtle, unpolemical and yes, challenging – challenging in the way that walking up Snowdon is challenging but you get a great view at the top.”


The decision, he stressed, was unanimous. Indeed Appiah and his fellow judges – Val McDermid, Leo Robson, Leanne Shapton and Jacqueline Rose – didn’t even come to a vote. They had each prepared a ranked list but they were never called on. “We had a conversation,” said Appiah. “We have developed a capacity to reason together. This wasour choice.” The fact that Burns is a woman and that the novel deals with issues thrown into sharp relief by the MeToo# furore did not enter the judges’ reasoning. These are themes that are as old as time and not ones specific to the current moment. And nor does the fact that Milkman shows a divided society mean that it specifically references the Irish border question that is dominating the current Brexit negotiations. This, said Appiah, is a book that uses particularity to highlight the universal and one “that will last because there will always be disturbances in society and there will always be gossip and rumour”.


In the meantime, Burns becomes the 17th female winner in the prize’s history and the first Northern Irish writer to win – indeed, although Milkman is her third novel, this is her first major prize. She will find the experience both bewildering and transformative while her publishers, Faber & Faber, will be swinging from the rafters no less vigorously. It is not uncommon for publishers to press the button for reprints while still at the prize dinner table and before the evening comes to an end.


Burns can kiss goodbye to any thoughts she had of a quiet late 2018 and 2019, let alone getting any work done on a new book. Her immediate future will be a whirl. Maybe it is just as well that, as she says: “I can’t intend anything in my writing, or demand anything of my writing. I have no idea what is going to come.” The madness that descends on a Man Booker winner will at least give her characters time to formulate a new story for her to channel. Maybe they might find time to give themselves – and especially Anna Burns – a pat on the back too.