One of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world has been announced, and the recipient has pulled off a major upset

By David Canfield
October 16, 2018 at 05:31 PM EDT
Milkman by Anna BurnsCR: Faber & Faber
Credit: Faber + Faber

Here’s a title to add to your reading list this fall: Irish author Anna Burns has won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious English-language literary awards, for her new novel Milkman.

The result is a major surprise, as Burns had steep competition from a slew of acclaimed North American writers. The presumed frontrunners were U.S. author Richard Powers, for his nature-themed epic The Overstory, and Canada’s Esi Edugyan, whose latest novel Washington Black was greeted with universal praise stateside upon its September publication. Also thought to be in contention was the youngest author ever shortlisted for the prize, Daisy Johnson, for her debut novel Everything Under.

Milkman, which publishes in the U.S. later this year, is set in ’70s Northern Ireland and is told from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl, as she’s forced into a relationship with an older man. Navigating a mysterious unnamed city, she tries to fend off the suspicions of her brother-in-law and her mother. The novel explores consequences of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness, as well as the perils of state-sponsored terrorism and polarization. The Booker Prize’s chair of judges, philospher Kwame Anthony Appiah, dubbed the book “incredibly original.”

“None of us has ever read anything like this before,” Appiah declared as he announced the win at a dinner at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday evening. “Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humor.”

Milkman also defeated fellow finalists The Mars Room, the new novel by Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers), and The Long Take, the novel by poet Robin Robertson. Earlier this year, Sabrina emerged as the first graphic novel ever longlisted for the Booker, but ultimately didn’t advance to the final round of voting.

Milkman breaks the two-year streak of U.S. authors winning the Booker Prize, a controversial trend since until recently they’d been excluded from consideration. Last year’s winner was George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, and in 2016, the prize went to Paul Beatty for The Sellout.

Milkman hits shelves in the U.S. on Dec. 11 via Graywolf.

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