BRIGHTON (England) • Anna Burns sounded almost giddy one recent Monday.

The week before, she had won the Man Booker Prize for Milkman, her third novel, about an unnamed 18-year-old coerced into a relationship at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles – as the conflict is known locally.

The win was not the only reason for her excitement. “I can feel I’m on the cusp of something,” she said.

Burns suffers from “lower back and nerve pain”, she said, the result of a botched operation.

“Nerves pain,” she suddenly added, correcting herself. “There’s plenty of nerves involved.”

Thanks to the Booker, which includes a US$64,000 (S$87,500) prize, she may get treatment in Germany without having to worry about the cost. “If it’s successful, I’ll be able to write again,” she said. “I haven’t written in 41/2 years.”

The last writing she did was finishing Milkman, a process that dragged out for months because of the pain.

She had tried standing desks, she said. And various chairs. “But it’s not just the physical pain. It’s the whole emotional stress that goes with it.”

“Can we just move off the health?” she added with an awkward laugh.

She then got out of the chair and leaned against a pillar to make herself more comfortable. “Don’t worry, I do this a lot,” she said.

Burns is one of the more surprising recent winners of the Booker, one of literature’s biggest awards.

Milkman was this year’s outsider, up against Richard Powers’ ecological epic The Overstory and Esi Edugyan’s heralded slavery-era Washington Black, among others. It was also labelled an “experimental novel” because its characters are nameless and its paragraphs sometimes run for several pages.

Her victory provoked think pieces about the “bold choice”.

“I don’t understand,” said Burns, when asked why it had picked up such an awkward label. “Is it the whole nameless thing? Is it really difficult? The book just didn’t want names.”

The tag does not seem to have put many off buying it. Faber, her British publisher, has sold more than 350,000 copies so far. The book will be published by Graywolf Press in the United States today.

Milkman tells the story of Middle Sister who stands out in her neighbourhood for her habit of reading while walking.

The Milkman of the title is an apparent paramilitary, who stalks Middle Sister, insinuates he will murder her “Maybe-Boyfriend” and talks himself into her life.

The book is told from Middle Sister’s perspective, most of which are the thoughts rushing through her head as events force themselves upon her.

The book is filled with an oppressive air, giving a distinct impression of what parts of Belfast were like in the 1970s, but also a surprising amount of humour.

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of this year’s Booker jury, said its focus on men abusing power and what happens when rumours spiral out of control gave it wide resonance.

Burns denies Middle Sister is her – “All we share is the reading while walking,” she said – but it is easy for a reader to jump to conclusions based on Burns’ life story.

Burns, 56, grew up in a working-class family in Ardoyne, a mainly Roman Catholic district of Belfast. She lived with her aunt across the road from her parents and six siblings. “I’d go over to the house so I had all that rowdiness, which was important, then I’d go back to my aunt’s for the quietness,” she said.

The Troubles started when she was six, and that forms the backdrop for her novels. In 1969, Ardoyne was evacuated because homes were getting burnt down.

The soldiers at the refugee camp south of the border in the Republic of Ireland, where she and her family were sent, brought her more food than she had seen before, she said. She could not have been more upset when she was sent back to school.

Burns’ aunt turned her onto reading by making her go to the library, she said. “I’d always have a book in my bag, even if it was a clutch and I was made up to go clubbing.”

But her habit of walking while reading soon became a source of local bafflement.

“Complete strangers would say to me, ‘You’re that girl who walks and reads’ or ‘I saw you on the something road reading.’ And I thought, ‘Why would they comment on it? Am I that noticeable?'”

Thinking about those reactions kick-started Milkman, she said.

Burns already knows what her next book is about. “It gave itself to me, like almost all of it, and then it kind of said, ‘Back later.’ That was years ago,” she said.

Its characters still pop into her thoughts now and then, she added.

“They’re about. They’ve been giving me bits and pieces. So that does give me hope that maybe I am going to get some treatment and write again.”

How would she feel if an operation is not possible, or does not work, and she cannot write that book or anything else? “Yeah, I can’t go there,” Burns said. “That’s actually quite scary.”


•Milkman ($18.14) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

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