Man Booker prize 2018: ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns is top seller on shortlist

Richard Powers is favourite to win elite prize tonight but Belfast’s Anna Burns is top seller

The  Man Booker Prize 2018 shortlist.  Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The Man Booker Prize 2018 shortlist. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire


The Overstory by Richard Powers is the bookmakers’ favourite to win the Man Booker Prize, which will be announced on Tuesday night at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall. However, the three favourites on the longlist – Normal People by Sally Rooney, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje and Sabrina by Nick Drnaso – did not even make the shortlist, so readers may be best advised to spend their money in bookshops, not the bookie’s.

Given that the prestigious prize’s organisers take pride in its power to influence readers and increase sales, perhaps a better indicator might be which of the shortlisted titles has proven most popular with the public since September 20th. The cream of this year’s crop, by this reckoning, is the Irish contender, Milkman by Belfast author Anna Burns.

Since the shortlist was announced last month, according to the latest figures from Nielsen Book Scan, Milkman has sold 4,019 copies, comfortably outselling her nearest rival, Daisy Johnson, whose debut novel, Everything Under, has sold 2,467 copies since September 20th. If English author Johnson is chosen tonight, at 28 she will be the youngest winner, just ahead of Eleanor Catton who won in 2013 with The Luminaries.

Of the rest of the field, Washington Black by Canadian Esi Edugyan has sold 1,852 copies since being shortlisted, ahead of The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (1,172); The Long Take by Robin Robertson (1,095); and The Overstory by the favourite Power (1,088).

Milkman has outsold the rest of the shortlist combined in Ireland, with 1,583 sales out of the 3,000 copies sold here of the six shortlisted books, and is the most popular title in the combined British and Irish markets, with total sales of 6,442 copies. It is the second bestselling shortlisted title in Britain, with 4,859 sales, just behind Everything Under on 5,241 sales.

Of course, the only opinions that matter are those of this year’s judges: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Val McDermid, Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose and Leanne Shapton. Appiah, the chair of the judges, said of Milkman: “The language of Anna Burns’ Milkman is simply marvellous; beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist. From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world — threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads — while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman, negotiating a way between the demands of family, friends and lovers in an unsettled time.”

Of the six shortlisted titles, Irish Times critics were most enthusiastic about Milkman, The Mars Room and Everything Under, finding elements to criticise as well as praise in the other books.

Milkman is “an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars”, reviewer Adrian McKinty said, while Eoin McNamee wrote: “I haven’t stopped talking about Anna Burns’s astonishing Milkman. The voice is dazzling, funny, acute. Like all great writing it invents its own context, becomes its own universe. It’s not that she’s below the radar. It may be that when you’re talking about writing from Belfast, she is the radar, the finder of strange objects at a distance, the uncoverer of what moves unseen in the dark.”

Jonathan McAloon said of Johnson’s book: “Everything Under is a transgender retelling of the Oedipus myth, but it is also a convergence for myth: a meeting place. There are elements of various fairytales and legends, combined in an entirely novel way. And this imaginative and innovative use of myth leads to the creation of a new myth. As well as the pleasures of allusion and innovation, there is a spellbinding tension. As the threads move towards a common end, you’re a child who wants to know the magic; all the more if, like a young listener to a fairytale, you sense what’s coming.”

Rob Doyle wrote of Kushner’s US female prison drama: “Though it traffics in the grim realities of life sentences and death row, The Mars Room is curiously uplifting, even celebratory, supporting Martin Amis’s maxim that achieved art is incapable of lowering the spirits. Ultimately, this very great and very American novel is a paean to amor fati, to embracing one’s fate no matter how strange or terrible.”

Belinda McKeon, in her review of Edugyan’s tale of an escaped slave, wrote: “For Washington Black, which after this opening section ranges over settings from Virginia to the Arctic Circle to Nova Scotia, from London to Amsterdam to Morocco, following Wash and his fortunes all the while, certainly sketches the shape of the epic, but with so much ground to cover, and so many twists of fate to navigate – and within a period of less than a decade – much of the emotional and indeed cultural weight and substance of the narrative ends up jettisoned. This, in itself, is the stuff of a marvellous story; surprising, layered, edged with tension and limned with beauty. It can only be thought a pity, then, that Edugyan topples it off its own peak into a whirlwind of secondary and succeeding storylines which strain not just credibility but the author’s own prose.”

Eoin McNamee was underwhelmed by Powers’ epic ecological fable: “There’s a leaning towards the benign in the work, and this is given full rein when it comes to trees. Powers can take a marriage apart in prose, strip it mercilessly down to its bare parts, but a forest always gets the full kindly light. You want to tell him that it’s a tree, not a kitten in a basket, and it can look after its own meaning even if it can’t stop the teeth of a chainsaw and the greed of the timber mill. This high-octane earnestness is self-defeating. The authors lyricism thrown away in the pursuit of another assertion of the essential nature of trees, the tree lore, tree science, tree philosophy, tree wonder, and their elaborate vocabularies. You want it to work but have your doubts.”

John McAuliffe wrote of Robin Robertson’s verse novel about a traumatised US veteran: “The verse novel is an unusual genre, emphasising intensity and tone with its line-breaks and stanzas. Robertson intersperses present-tense narration with italicised flashbacks and bold-type excerpts from postcards and diaries that gesture at a gently pastoral reminiscence of a teenage love affair in Nova Scotia, but the overall effect is uneven and bitty... The book’s disturbing, powerful depiction of traumatic violence and its reverberating aftermath might have been better served by a shorter take.”

The shortlist

Milkman, Anna Burns ( Faber & Faber)
Chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah comments: ‘The language of Anna Burns’ Milkman is simply marvellous; beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist. From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world — threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads — while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman, negotiating a way between the demands of family, friends and lovers in an unsettled time. The novel delineates brilliantly the power of gossip and social pressure in a tight-knit community, and shows how both rumour and political loyalties can be put in the service of a relentless campaign of individual sexual harassment. Burns draws on the experience of Northern Ireland during the Troubles to portray a world that allows individuals to abuse the power granted by a community to those who resist the state on their behalf. Yet this is never a novel about just one place or time. The local is in service to an exploration of the universal experience of societies in crisis.’

Synopsis: In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan (Published by Serpent’s Tail)
Judge Leo Robson comments: ‘Esi Edugyan’s ravishing third novel is narrated by its title character–an eighteen-year-old freeman recalling his escape from life as a child slave on a sun-scorched sugar plantation in Barbados, British West India, during the 1820s. Until the age of ten or eleven, Washington recalls, only his sweat was of value. Then he meets Christopher Wilde–“Titch”–a garrulous, kindly-seeming engineer who recognises Washington’s other gifts, in particular a native intelligence sufficient to master skills and learn arcane facts and record the equations for his aerostatic experiments. And so begins Washington’s “strange second life.” Borne to freedom on a hydrogen balloon, he travels to Virginia, to Nova Scotia and the Arctic, to Amsterdam and London while pursuing his newfound gift for draughtsmanship and interest in marine zoology. Broad in size and scope, Washington Black proceeds over almost fifty brisk-paced chapters. Edugyan’s achievement, in unfolding Wash’s story, is one full of contraries. It is a novel of ideas but also of the senses, a yarn and a lament, a chase story that doubles as an intellectual quest, a history lesson in the form of a fairy tale. Moments of horrifying cruelty and violence sit alongside episodes of great tenderness and deep connection. A majestic grandeur is achieved with the lightest touch.’

Synopsis: Escape is only the beginning. From the brutal cane plantations of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-filled streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black is the tale – inspired by a true story – of a world destroyed and the search to make it whole again. When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him. Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

Esi Edugyan was born in Calgary, Canada, in 1977. Her novel Half Blood Blues won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize and the Orange Prize. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Everything Under, Daisy Johnson (Published by Vintage, Jonathan Cape)
Judge Val McDermid comments:‘The single word that sums up this beautifully written debut novel is “fluidity”. It’s set in a world of waterways; nobody’s character remains fixed from start to finish; gender and memory are as fluid as the waters themselves; the flow of myth and folklore runs through it; and even words themselves slither away from attempts to pin down their meaning. Gretel, the young woman at the heart of the book, is a lexicographer. But the true definition she seeks is the restoration of her relationship with her mother, who abandoned her to foster care so she could make a fresh start with a new lover. When they are finally reunited, that desire is complicated and confounded by her mother’s dementia. The past encroaches on the present as we gradually unravel their personal mythologies. It’s a modern variation on Sophocles’s Oedipus, and the twists and turns of the book’s stories braid this together with European folk tales to create a strong narrative river that carries us to a conclusion laced with tantalising possibilities. The natural world is evoked with sinister sensitivity and through it all runs the shadow of our imagined monsters.’

Synopsis: Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though — almost a lifetime ago — and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature. A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water — a canal thief? — swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Daisy Johnson was born in Paignton, UK, in 1990. Her debut short story collection, Fen, was published in 2016. She is the winner of the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize, the A.M. Heath Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She currently lives in Oxford by the river.

The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner (Published by Vintage, Jonathan Cape)
Chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah comments: ‘Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a heartbreaking exploration of lives at the margins of society, mobilising fiercely inventive characters whose lives seem mostly to have been foredoomed; their various misfortunes bring them to the prison that is the staging ground of their encounters. Against the background of the horrifying experiences of a women’s prison, the central character reflects on the life, as a neglected child and an adult sex worker, that has led her to the killing for which she has been sentenced for the rest of her life. In this seemingly hopeless world, some of the prisoners learn to manage, even accept, their circumstances, and the reader’s interest in their lives is driven by a propulsive plot that keeps you turning the pages despite your anger at the many injustices they contain. Kushner insists that we face the reality of what is being done in our names; and the energy and imagination of her craft enthrals on every page.’

Synopsis: Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother. Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike, allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes. Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line — until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny. The Mars Room presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Rachel Kushner was born in Oregon, USA, in 1968. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up novel, The Flamethrowers, was also a finalist for the National Book Award and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and the Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

The Overstory, Richard Powers (Published by Penguin Random House, William Heinemann)
Judge Leanne Shapton comments: The Overstory, a novel about trees and people who understand them, is the eco-epic of the year and perhaps the decade. Unlike the Lorax, who spoke for the trees, Richard Powers prefers to let them do their own talking. Instead of a middle distance or landscape, he offers portraits: a gallery of species — Chestnut, Mulberry, Banyan, Redwood — placing his human characters correctly in scale with that royalty. The trees tell of cellular ancestry and transmission, cycles that take place along spans of time we cannot imagine, though Powers can and does. Nine powerfully written, interlinked stories play out in the understory. Along the way there are stirring, lyrical paragraphs on love, photography, the culture of ancient China, game code, science, and maybe most impressively, faith, rendered without sanctimony or reprimand. By the end, the book’s voices, human and arboreal, echo unforgettably.

Synopsis: Nine strangers, each in different ways, become summoned by trees, brought together in a last stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable, ranging from antebellum New York to the late-twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, revealing a world alongside our own — vast, slow, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world, and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Richard Powers was born in Illinois, USA, in 1957. He is the author of 12 novels, including Orfeo (which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014), The Echo Maker, The Time of Our Singing, Galatea 2.2 and Plowing the Dark. He is the recipient of a MacArthur grant and the National Book Award, and has been a Pulitzer Prize and four-time National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Long Take, Robin Robertson (Published by Pan Macmillan, Picador)
Judge Jacqueline Rose comments: The Long Take offers a wholly unique literary voice and form. A verse novel with photographs, it manages to evoke with exceptional vividness aspects of post-World War Two history that are rarely parsed together. Swinging effortlessly between combat with its traumatic aftermath, and the brute redevelopment of American cities, The Long Take shows us the ravages of capitalism as a continuation of war-time violence by other means. It is also a bold, eloquent homage to cinema as perhaps the only medium in which the true history of America has been preserved. This is a genre-defying novel. Cutting from battlefield to building demolitions in San Francisco and LA, to the killing of black men on the streets of America today, it imports into the very form of the writing one of the most famous film techniques: cross-cutting. You could be in the cinema, or listening to an elegy, or reading the story of one man’s devastating experience as he tries to rebuild the shards of his life after the war. A pageant of loss, The Long Take is also a lyrical tribute to the power of writing and image to convey, and somehow survive, historic and ongoing suffering and injustice.

Synopsis: Walker is a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder; he can’t return home to rural Nova Scotia, and looks instead to the city for freedom, anonymity and repair. As he moves from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco we witness a crucial period of fracture in American history, one that also allowed film noir to flourish. The Dream had gone sour but — as those dark, classic movies made clear — the country needed outsiders to study and dramatise its new anxieties. While Walker tries to piece his life together, America is beginning to come apart: deeply paranoid, doubting its own certainties, riven by social and racial division, spiralling corruption and the collapse of the inner cities. The Long Take is about a good man, brutalised by war, haunted by violence and apparently doomed to return to it — yet resolved to find kindness again, in the world and in himself.

Robin Robertson was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1955. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has published five collections of poetry and has received a number of honours, including the Petrarca-Preis, the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and all three Forward Prizes. His selected poems, Sailing the Forest, was published in 2014 and The Long Take was published in February 2018. Robin Robertson lives in London.

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