Anna Burns: From relative unknown to Man Booker prize winner

‘Milkman’ author has been praised for her ‘dazzingly inventive’ writing approach

Despite having been shortlisted for what was then the prestigious Orange Prize for women's fiction in 2002 for her debut, No Bones, Anna Burns is a relatively unknown Irish writer. That looks certain to change following her Booker win. Sales of last year's winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, increased by 1,227 per cent after it won. To date it has sold just under 250,000 copies.

Burns joins a select club of Irish winners of the prize: Anne Enright (The Gathering, 2007); John Banville (The Sea, 2005); Roddy Doyle (Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, 1993); Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea, 1978), and JG Farrell (Troubles, 1970, and The Siege of Krishnapur, 1973).

Burns may no longer live in Belfast – she left for university in London in 1987 – but her native Ardoyne exerts a strong hold on her fiction. The milkman of the title of her latest novel is so-called because the IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk-crates to doors at the corner of each street.

While Milkman depicts a community brutalised by British state violence, its portrayal of paramilitary domination does not flatter republicanism. Its central character, an unnamed teenage girl who, like the author, reads as she walks the streets of Ardoyne, is at odds with the area’s paranoia and community groupthink.

My characters come to me and tell me themselves what they would say and how they would say it

Writer and former senior Sinn Féin figure Danny Morrison dismissed No Bones as a "misanthropic portrayal of the nationalist people of [Ardoyne]" and worried that "a southern Irish or English audience would read this novel believing the fictional context to be a faithful representation of reality, even if the story is completely blown by its surrealist affectations".

By contrast, Caroline Magennis wrote of it in The Irish Times: "A masterclass in technique, Burns's powerful, disturbing book is not for anyone who prefers their reading cosy or comforting. It is a profoundly troubling novel which considers mental health during the Troubles with an unflinching, ambitious narrative voice. It is a political, difficult novel that exposes the gaps in the usual Troubles novel, and is all the richer for it."

In an Irish Times interview with Eoin McNamee, Burns said her second novel, Little Constructions (2007), “is not, for me, about any Northern Irish paramilitary organisation, or about the Troubles, or any government administration of any area . . . for me, it’s about the domestic madness and collusion of the family and associates of the insane leader of a murder gang.That could be any murder gang.”

Describing her method, she said: “My characters come to me and tell me themselves what they would say and how they would say it, and it seems I don’t have much control in the matter except for I either record what they’re saying or I do not. (If I don’t, they don’t hang around, so I do.)”

Dangerous liaisons

Academic Alison Garden placed Milkman in a long tradition of dangerous liaisons, from Strongbow and Aoife to Brian Friel’s Translations: “Burns’s twinning of desire and danger is interesting when considered as part of a lengthier tradition of Irish writing. Illicit, forbidden and dangerous longing is a stalwart of Irish literary and cultural history.”

Writing in The Irish Times on Tuesday, Catherine Toal, dean of Bard College Berlin, whose mother is from Ardoyne, wrote: "The pattern of existence evoked by Milkman is so all-encompassing, aesthetically and politically, that it charts alongside actual death and murder the lurking threat of absorption into a kind of living death, a mummification of desire and hope that menaces everyone. Here is where we find the meaning of the comparison to Samuel Beckett. "

Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado in the Dublin Review of Books observed: “Her [Burns’s] approach is dazzlingly inventive, with a disarmingly loquacious and often darkly funny stream-of-consciousness narrative, and a distinctive surrealist style.

In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”

Claire Kilroy in the Guardian wrote: "Milkman calls to mind several seminal works of Irish literature. In its digressive, batty narrative voice, it resembles a novel cited by the narrator: Tristram Shandy. It is Beckettian in its ability to trace the logical within the absurd."