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The Man Booker Prize 2018

Imagine having trouble making ends meet, suffering from back pain so severe that you are barely able to work, and then all of a sudden winning a renowned literary prize including prize money of £50,000 for a novel you did not even mean to write in the first place.

This is the story of Anna Burns, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, in a nutshell.

The Man Booker Prize is the most important British literary prize and has been awarded annually since 1969. It started as a prize for English-speaking writers from Great Britain, the Commonwealth and Ireland, but was opened to US authors in 2014.

Burns is the first Northern Irish writer to win the prestigious literary prize. Her novel Milkman is hailed as challenging, original and experimental. It is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the civil conflict that disrupted the Emerald Isle for decades, but with its portrayal of a deeply divided society, it contains universal truth.

Having been born in Belfast herself, Burns’s background had a profound influence on her work. She processes her own experiences of this conflict-ridden era by exploring themes as varied as violence, oppressive circumstances, social division, the abuse of power and sexual harassment. Book awards are often political and this year is no exception, as Milkman speaks to contemporary concerns from totalitarianism to Brexit and #MeToo.

What is so striking about Milkman is its unique narrative voice. Besides, the fact that the author has dispensed with all character names certainly contributes to the innovativeness of her novel, too. Despite not being a light read, Burns weaves dark humour into her narrative and the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness voice is definitely worth being heard.

When asked about the novel’s genesis, Burns says it was originally just a few hundred words she had no use for in another novel. As she went along, Milkman was born. Writing at that time was no easy feat for her: Burns suffered from agonizing back pain and was short of money. To make matters worse, her book was initially turned down by several publishers. The Man Booker Prize must have come as quite a surprise to her and at the award ceremony, she was indeed speechless. Burns will now be able to clear her debts and live off the rest of the prize money – and hopefully write many more novels. She already has a new idea up her sleeve …