Anna Burns’s third novel, Milkman, is the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and it’s hard not to think of her victory as good news all round.
If the bookies’ favourite, The Overstory by Richard Powers, had carried off the prize, there would have been trouble. His eco-friendly epic about tree-lovers through the ages is a fine work, but Powers would have been the third American man to win the prize in a row, fuelling the grumbles that have been going on since US authors first became eligible for the prize in 2014.
One can imagine the terrible scenes that would have ensued: the shelves of Waterstones bare as British and Commonwealth novelists went on strike; marches on Downing Street organised by the Royal Society of Literature, with impeccably punctuated placards.
But the failure of an American to win the prize this year seems, paradoxically, more likely to ensure the Americans’ eligibility for a while longer at least. This is good for the Booker’s worldwide reputation as a serious, non-protectionist prize determined to reward the best English-language novel of the year, wherever it comes from.
The triumph of Milkman, the latest in the long and distinguished list of Booker winners by Irish writers, will keep everybody happy; more importantly, it is a genuinely worthy winner. The bookies, with their usual perspicacity where literary matters are concerned, saw it as a six to one outsider, and one can see why they thought the judges might have been scared of giving it the palm: neither its style nor its subject matter make it an easy read. But it is very funny, thought-provoking and unforgettable.
Anna Burns, who was born in Belfast in 1962 and brought up in Ardoyne, says that the book was inspired by growing up “in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could”. But this is not documentary realism.
We are never told the name of the city in which Milkman is set, nor the name of the 18-year-old girl who narrates the story, nor the real names of most of the characters. The narrator finds the community in which she lives so intolerably unpleasant - “The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them” - that she tries to ignore it and lose herself in the world of 19th-century literature.
But, for reasons she can’t fathom, she attracts the romantic interest of “the milkman”, a senior figure in the paramilitary who is one of the most memorably creepy figures I’ve come across in a book for ages.
In some ways the book resembles the TV comedy Derry Girls with its serio-comic depictions of young women undergoing the ordinary traumas of adolescence against a background of enervating, endless-seeming conflict. But what makes it unique is the strange narrative voice, with echoes of Tristram Shandy and Beckett but ultimately not quite like anything that has come before.
It may be tough going at times - the judges recommend reading it out loud or waiting for the audio book. You can see why the bookies balked. But at least the Booker has fulfilled its remit this year of bringing into the limelight a book that is both chewily challenging and deeply enjoyable.