October 19, 2018
‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns scoops a refreshingly unpredictable Booker Prize
by Tom Clayton
This year’s Man Booker Prize has been one of frequent surprises. When the 12-strong longlist was announced back in July, one or two curios immediately stood out: Belinda Bauer’s Snap made an appearance, representing a major coup for the crime genre; Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the prize; and Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, an extended prose poem set in postwar Hollywood, was a highly unusual curveball.
And there were talking points aplenty when the shortlist was announced in September, too, with Daisy Johnson becoming the youngest ever shortlisted author for her debut novel Everything Under. Readers were also baffled by the omission of the two bookies’ favourites, Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. The latter has an illustrious Booker record already, of course, with The English Patient winning both the 1992 award, and the Golden Booker Prize, voted for by the public from 50 years of previous winners.
Rooney’s snub seemed to strike a particular chord on social media, with many on Twitter claiming she was ‘robbed’. Whether that’s true remains to be seen – Normal People still looks set to be one of the biggest-selling literary novels of 2018 – but it does demonstrate the passion which this regularly-written-off prize still generates after half a century.
Johnson subsequently claimed the aforementioned, often-cursed ‘Bookies’ Favourite’ crown, overtaking Richard Powers‘ The Understory to emerge as a clear leader in the odds race. But the prize, announced on Tuesday evening, went to Anna Burns‘ fictional account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Milkman.
The winner was perhaps the biggest surprise yet – but, at a time when UK politicians seem all too happy to play fast and loose with the region as part of their Brexit negotiations, Milkman delivers a stark and necessary reminder of a uniquely horrifying – and horrifyingly recent – conflict.
Burns, the first Northern Irish winner in the prize’s history, has proved a popular winner – both within the industry, and, it seems, with the book-buying public: Faber increased their reprint from 45,000 to 100,000 in the space of a couple of days. And bookstore staff have given Milkman the thumbs up too, with The Bookseller presenting a positive roundup of the Indies yesterday.
What will 2019 bring for the Booker? Well, if it’s anything like as unpredictable as this year’s… who knows? On thing is certain, though: the mainstream vs. literary debate will rumble on regardless… and that’s probably another blog for another time.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.