It’s one of the most prestigious – not to mention lucrative – literary awards in the world, and this year, it’s joining the heaving mantelpiece of Irish writer Anna Burns.
Already the recipient of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for fiction, Burns’ 2018 novel Milkman has now scooped the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award and its €100,000 prize.
The shortlist of eight novels, whittled from 156 books nominated by libraries in 119 cities across the world, also included John Boyne’s A Ladder To The Sky; Orchid and The Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes; Skin Deep by Liz Nugent; John Connolly’s The Woman in the Woods and Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
Previous Irish winners include Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2018), Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane (2013), Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2011), and Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2006).
Milkman, set during an unspecified time (but widely believed to be during the Troubles in Northern Ireland) follows the experience of Middle Sister, an 18-year-old girl who is harassed by a much older man, an apparent paramilitary known simply as “the milkman”.
Burns’ deft prose gives it a menacing and eerie quality, and the book has been occasionally compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Others have likened her meandering style to Beckett, Swift and even Flann O’Brien.
She has been no stranger to awards attention: she was shortlisted for what was then the prestigious Orange Prize in 2002 for her debut novel No Bones. In 2001, she also won the Winfred Holtby Memorial Prize for the best regional novel.
The ongoing fortunes of Milkman, both fiscal and critical, are already the stuff of lore. When she won the Booker Prize (and its £50,000 bounty) in 2018, the writer was asked by the BBC what she would do with her prize money. Burns famously replied: “I’ll clear my debts and live on what’s left.”
Five years ago, she was struggling to make ends meet, and had relied on food banks and house-sitting jobs (she thanks her local food bank, and the UK charity Homelink, in the acknowledgements section of Milkman). She had struggled to complete the novel due to acute back pain, after a spinal injury, and when she sent the manuscript to her agent, a number of publishers turned it down.
“It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge, huge gift,” she told The Guardian the day after her Booker Prize win.
Born in Belfast and raised in a ‘kitchen house’ within the working class Catholic area of Ardoyne as one of seven siblings, Burns moved to Notting Hill in London in 1997 to study Russian and published her first novel, No Bones, in 2001.
As a child, she was a voracious reader and became something of a prodigious young writer. “As a child I’d be stuck fast in Enid Blytons, Agatha Christies, Russian fairytales. One day I thought, hold on, I’m going to write a book. So I was whatever age I was and I started writing this book which I envisaged as a school book. I mean one with a fictional boarding school setting,” she said recently.
No Bones, too, was set amid the Troubles, and Burns drew heavily on her own memories of growing up in Ardoyne.
Of writing with past experiences in mind, she has said: “I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could.”
The International Dublin Literary Award win is sure to result in another sales boost, in addition to more international recognition.
When the Booker shortlist was announced in September 2018, Milkman had sold just 4,019 copies in Ireland. Less than 24 hours after the announcement of Burns’ win, the novel had shot to number one on the Amazon bestseller chart.
Catriona Bennett, buyer at independent book wholesaler Argosy Books, is aware of the sales boost the award can deliver.
“There’s a definite push after winning this prize,” she notes. “Last year’s winner [Emily Ruskovich’s] Idaho had enjoyed reasonable sales, but once it won this award, we got phone calls from all the bookshops in Ireland looking for it.
“Milkman ticks all the boxes – it’s a Booker winner, and also an Irish winner, and this prize will definitely give the book a whole new run in the weeks leading up to Christmas,” Ms Bennett adds. “Having won this award and the Booker, this will definitely make her more of a household name.”
On winning the award and €100,000 last year, novelist Ruskovich noted the money meant she could “return much more vigorously to writing”.
“It’s such a shocking amount of money to have won!” she said at the time.
“I don’t know exactly what I’ll do with it but I feel I can now make choices that will ultimately really benefit my writing.”
Burns’ fans, meanwhile, are hoping the prize money will have a similar effect on her creativity, and are champing at the bit for Milkman’s follow-up.
The author has already made mention of a book that she has referred to in interviews as her “real third book”, and has noted she can “feel it calling” to her. “I can feel I’m on the cusp of something,” she remarked recently.