17 Oct 2018

Author Anna Burns wins Man Booker Prize for 'Milkman'

11:13 am on 17 October 2018

Anna Burns has become the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker Prize.

Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns holds her book 'Milkman'.

Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns holds her book 'Milkman'. Photo: AFP

Her novel, Milkman, is a coming-of-age story about a young girl's affair with an older married man, set in a society that closely mirrors Troubles-era Belfast.

Judges for the elite literary fiction prize described it as "beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist."

Ms Burns, the 17th woman to win in the Man Booker's 49-year history, will receive £50,000 ($NZ100,085) in prize money.

Milkman is the fourth novel to be written by Ms Burns, who was born in Belfast in 1962.

Her debut, No Bones, was published in 2001, and followed by Little Constructions six years later. Her most recent work prior to Milkman was Mostly Hero - a novella published in 2014.

Chairperson of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, said the texture of the language was "wonderful".

"It's written in this amazing voice of this woman who is living in a divided society," he said.

"She's being harassed by a man who is sexually interested in her, and he's taking advantage of divisions in the society to use the power he has, because of those divisions, to go after her."

Mr Appiah said Ms Burns wrote with a witty, unique voice.

"It is true that because of the flow of the language and the length of the sentences and the fact that some of the language is unfamiliar, that it is not a light read.

"It's challenging in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging - it's definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top."

Ms Burns opted not to give names to her characters in the novel - even her narrator refers to herself as "Middle Sister".

The Man Booker Prize shortlist of six writers was dominated by women this year, with four women making the top selection.

The list included two debut novels, one of which was Everything Under, from the youngest author ever to make the list, 27-year-old Daisy Johnson.

Set in the British countryside, Ms Johnson's novel centres on the complex relationship between Gretel and her mother, who abandoned her to foster care so she could make a fresh start with a new lover.

Canadian writer Esi Edugyan made the shortlist for the second time with Washington Black, which explores a friendship between an 11-year-old slave and an abolitionist inventor who together try to escape from Barbados on a quest for freedom.

British poet Robin Robertson was shortlisted for his novel in verse, The Long Take.

Rachel Kushner (USA) was selected for The Mars Room, in which convict Romy Hall begins two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Woman's Correctional Facility and is confronted with a new reality of institutional living from her previously chaotic life in the outside world.

Another finalist was Richard Powers (USA) for The Overstory, about nine strangers summoned by trees to try to save the continent's few remaining acres of forest.

Mr Appiah said each of the finalists' novels was a "miracle of stylistic invention in which the language takes centre stage".

"Each one explores the anatomy of pain - among the incarcerated and on a slave plantation, in a society fractured by sectarian violence, and even in the natural world," he said.

"But there are also in each of them moments of hope.

"These books speak very much to our moment, but we believe that they will endure."

Mr Appiah said many of the 171 books that had been submitted for the prize were overlong and badly in need of a vigorous pruning.

The Man Booker Prize is awarded annually to writers of any nationality writing in English and published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.