Anna Burns with her novel 'Milkman'.
Anna Burns with her novel 'Milkman'.
Image: Getty Images / Dave Benett

The 50th Man Booker Prize for fiction has been awarded to Anna Burns for her third novel Milkman, a challenging story of sexual predation during the Troubles in 1970s’ Belfast. Ms Burns is the first Northern Irish writer to win during 50 years of the prize and the first woman since Eleanor Catton in 2013.

The story is narrated by a bookish 18-year-old girl known as “Middle Sister” who is stalked by the eponymous Milkman, a married older man who is also a paramilitary. It is a tale about sexual harassment, but also of the destructive power of gossip and rumour — and the strictures of a society living in violent times.

The chair of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, said: “You’ve never heard a voice like this before. It is an Irish voice, but it is completely distinctive. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour.”

Mr Appiah insisted that the topicality of the Irish border issue on the cusp of Brexit did not play a part in the judges’ unanimous choice. While clearly about Belfast, the city is not explicitly referred to in the novel, making it, as Mr Appiah put it, “just as useful for thinking about Lebanon and Syria as it is for thinking about Ireland. It’s particular, but it is brilliantly universal, too.”

The book’s treatment of sexual harassment will doubtless lead to some hailing Milkman as the first #MeToo Man Booker novel, despite the fact Burns most probably wrote it before the movement began last year. Mr Appiah acknowledged that “one reads in light of what one knows” and that the novel is “not just about something that is going on in this moment. It is deeply polemical and morally challenging.” It should, he added “make us all feel we need to be very responsible”.

The £50,000 prize is the UK’s most prestigious literary prize and is eligible to any novel published in the UK and Ireland, written in English. This is the first year that novels published in Ireland were eligible for the prize.

In 2013, it was announced that the prize, previously only open to writers from the Commonwealth and the UK, would be opened up to include the US in 2014. Since then, two American writers — George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017 and Paul Beatty in 2016 for The Sellout — have taken the prize.

This year’s judges included Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, artist and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton, feminist writer Jacqueline Rose and cultural critic Leo Robson. They read over 170 novels each, whittled down to a longlist of 13, and a shortlist of six. The shortlisted writers hail from the US (Richard Powers and Rachel Kushner), Canada (Esi Edugyan), England (Daisy Johnson), Northern Ireland (Anna Burns) and Scotland (Robin Robertson).

The shortlist was described as being representative of the dark times we live in, with each of the six books chronicling the many anxieties of our age: technology and the environment, racism and incarceration, abuse, incest, Alzheimer’s and loneliness.

Ms Burns — and Faber, her publisher — can expect a surge in sales. George Saunders saw a 70 per cent increase in sales after winning the prize in 2017, and has sold just under 250,000 copies of Lincoln in the Bardo.

Milkman is written as free-flowing speech, rather than in a traditional narrative form. It is demanding for the reader, but Mr Appiah urged those struggling on their first attempt to persist. “It’s not a light read. Challenging, yes, in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging, it’s worth it for the views.”

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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