Anna Burns: Novelist of No

Anna Burns
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The Man Booker prize winner gives a metaphorical ballast to MeToo

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS IN BOOKS seldom make for interesting reading. The author thanks her near and dear, those who got her to write, those who fine-tuned what she wrote. Anna Burns’ list of acknowledgements in her 2018 Man Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman is similar; she thanks a host of people, literary societies and agents. But it is noteworthy for the mention of a charity and a food bank, Lewes District Churches Homelink and the Newhaven food bank, in East Sussex.

Publishing a book is never easy, and in Burns’ case it was harder than most. To write this novel, she had to grit her way through terrible back pain (she is just recovering from surgery) and struggle for a roof over her head and food on the table. Winning the highest literary prize in the English language is an extraordinary achievement, but for Burns, the first Northern Irish writer to win (for her third novel), the £50,000 prize money is especially welcome. “It’s nice to feel I’m solvent,” as she said in an interview to the Guardian soon after, “That’s a huge, huge gift.”

Fifty-six-year-old Burns grew up in Northern Ireland as one of seven siblings. Library cards were one of her dearest possessions. She devoured Enid Blytons, Agatha Christies and Russian literature. All three of her novels— Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones (2001), which was shortlisted for the then Orange prize in 2002—have dealt with conflict-ridden Belfast. When asked by The Times Literary Supplement if writing is ‘a political act’, she said, “For me, I’m very much concerned with the act of writing, to get it right, as right as I can, meaning truthfulness to the world of the fiction… I feel that what I write about is absolutely and essentially interested in how power is used, both in a personal and in a societal sense.”

This use and play of power can be vividly seen in the opening of Milkman. The narrator is an 18-year-old who is accused of having an affair with a 41-year-old milkman. Like Burns, who was a voracious reader as a child, the unnamed narrator in the novel is a ‘reading-while-walking’ type of woman. The novel is being hailed for its significance especially in the time of MeToo because it clearly brings to the fore the daily aggressions and micro-aggressions that women and girls face. The Booker’s chair of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah told the Independent, “I hope this novel will help people think about #MeToo. We think it will last, and by that I mean it’s not just about something that’s happening now. The novel is to be commended for giving us a deep and subtle and challenging—intellectually challenging and morally challenging—picture of something that’s part of what the #MeToo discussion is about.”

The MeToo discussion that Milkman illustrates is the ability (or not) to say ‘no’. One day while the narrator is reading Ivanhoe and walking down the street, she is stopped by the milkman, who is driving his van. He asks her if she wants a lift. The value of Milkman is its universal quality; it shows the daily impact of political disturbances on individuals and paints a vivid picture of the hold of gossip and rumour, agency and choice. Milkman might be set in the 70s, but the narrator’s voice could be that of today when she says, ‘At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment. I had a feeling for them, an intuition, a sense of repugnance for some situations and some people, but I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody, coming near.’

The right to not put up with any of that is why this is a valuable novel for our times.