Troubles-based books Milkman and Say Nothing win Orwell prizes

Anna Burns’s novel and Patrick Radden Keefe’s study of Jean McConville’s murder honoured

Milkman, by Irish writer Anna Burns, won the inaugural prize for political fiction. File photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Milkman, by Irish writer Anna Burns, won the inaugural prize for political fiction. File photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA


Two books about the Troubles have been announced as winners of Orwell prizes for 2019.

Anna Burns’s experimental novel Milkman won the inaugural prize for political fiction, while the prize for political writing was awarded to Patrick Radden Keefe for his book Say Nothing.

Milkman follows the story of an 18-year-old girl who is harassed by a much older and married paramilitary. It has been described as “experimental” for its long paragraphs and use of descriptions rather than character names.

Tom Sutcliffe, the chair of judges for the prize and BBC Radio 4 presenter, described the book’s tone of voice as “a marvel”.

“Milkman is a remarkable book – recording a specific time and a specific conflict with brilliant precision but universal in its account of how political allegiances crush and deform our instinctive human loyalties,” he said.

The Spectator’s literary editor, Sam Leith, the author Preti Taneja and Dr Xine Yao, an American literature lecturer at University College London, were the other judges of the award.

Last year, Belfast-born Burns became the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker prize for Milkman. The book, her third novel, also picked up the National Book Critics Circle award in 2019.


Say Nothing, by the New Yorker magazine staff writer Radden Keefe, forensically details the murder of Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972. McConville, a widowed mother who was abducted from her Belfast home in the presence of her children, was suspected of being an informer by the paramilitary organisation.

Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, who chaired the judges for the award, described Say Nothing as “an extraordinary piece of writing”.

“It comes across as an immensely personal tale yet encompasses the historical narrative of the situation in Northern Ireland, ” she added.

Other judges for the Orwell prize for political writing were Ted Hodgkinson, head of literature and spoken word at Southbank Centre, The Times’ literary editor, Robbie Millen, and the author and women’s rights activist Helen Pankhurst.

The director of the Orwell Foundation, Prof Jean Seaton, described the Northern Irish peace process as “arguably the greatest achievement of UK diplomacy since the second World War”. She added that people “still need reminding of the horrors this process ended”.

The winners of both prizes, which are worth £3,000, were unveiled on Tuesday at University College London – on the late author George Orwell’s birthday.

Meanwhile, the Orwell prize for journalism was awarded to Steve Bloomfield of Prospect magazine and Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore.

Lois Kapila, the publisher and managing editor of independent newspaper the Dublin Inquirer, was among six journalists nominated for the award. – Guardian