Anna Burns has become the first Northern Irish winner of the Man Booker Prize for her experimental tale of sexual coercion, Milkman.
The story of an 18-year-old girl’s encounters with sex, sectarianism and social coercion in an unnamed province has seen Burns become the first UK-born winner since Hilary Mantel in 2012.
Welcomed as a novel that will “help people think about Me Too”, it has also been praised for a unique first-person voice rich in the conversational language of Northern Ireland and its handling of universal problems facing women and outsiders.
Judges have said they did not consider the current prominence of Northern Ireland or the gender equality debate in their deliberations, nor was the accessibility of the book to average readers “on the Tube”.
Milkman has been hailed as a book that “will last” by the chairman of the panel of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who said the novel was as useful for thinking about fractured societies in Lebanon and Syria as it was for the current gender debate in the West.
The chairman said he was “resigned” to the novel being linked to the Me Too movement, but said the work was more universal.
Appiah said at a ceremony at the Guildhall in London: “It speaks to the future. I think it’s going to last.
“I think this will help people to think about Me Too. It’s not just about something that is going on in this moment.
“This is about the way in which men and women put pressure on a young girl to do things sexually that she doesn’t want to do. It had to do with a masculine environment.
“This is particular, but it’s brilliantly universal. It’s in the context of a sectarian, divided society.”
Milkman charts the course of a young girl with an ambivalent attitude to the paramilitary violence around her, struggling to combat unwanted sexual advances and the pernicious power of gossip.
Belfast-born Burns’ fourth novel uses a first-person voice rich in the conversational language of Northern Ireland, although the setting is never made explicit in the work. Lack of paragraphing adds a challenge for the reader.
Questioned on whether the work was too challenging for the average reader, Appiah defended the choice saying: “I have never thought that being readable on the Tube was an important feature of a novel.”
Crime writer Val McDermid, critic Leo Robson, writer and critic Jacqueline Rose and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton were the other judges for this year’s prize.
Issues of Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland and the cultural awareness of gender issues did not play a role in their choice of winner, the chair has confirmed.
Appiah said: “I would not have said ‘guys if we don’t pick a woman we’re going to get in trouble for this’. Same if we were drifting towards picking a man.
“We were not thinking about it. I really think this is a very original novel. We had never read anything like this before.
“It’s written in an amazing voice. This is a book about more than one thing. It is about many things. It’s quite amazing.”
Appiah said the panel’s deliberations had been friendly and the decision entirely unanimous, adding that there was no need for a vote and the choice was clear for the judges.
Milkman was selected from a shortlist including youngest shortlisted writer, Daisy Johnson with Everything Under, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Rooms and Robin Robertson’s The Long Take.
Burns’ victory ends a two-year streak by American winners of the prize, with talent from the US dominating since the award was opened up to writers from across the Atlantic in 2014.