Anna Burns won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction on Tuesday with Milkman – a vibrant and violent story about men, women, conflict and power set during Northern Ireland's years of Catholic-Protestant violence.
Ms Burns is the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the £50,000 (Dh242,000) prize, which is open to English-language authors from around the world. She received her trophy from Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at London's medieval Guildhall.
Milkman is narrated by a young woman dealing with an older man who uses family ties, social pressure and political loyalties as weapons of sexual coercion and harassment. It is set in the 1970s, but was published amid the global eruption of sexual misconduct allegations that sparked the ‘Me Too’ movement.
"I think this novel will help people to think about 'Me Too,' and I like novels that help people think about current movements and challenges," said philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who chaired the judging panel. "But we think it'll last – it's not just about something that's going on in this moment.
“I think it’s a very powerful novel about the damage and danger of rumour,” he added.
Ms Burns beat five others, including couple of favourites: American writer Richard Powers' tree-centric eco-epic The Overstory and Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan's Washington Black, the story of a slave who escapes from a sugar plantation in a hot-air balloon.
The other finalists were US novelist Rachel Kushner's which is set in a women's prison; Robin Robertson's The Long Take, a verse novel about a traumatised D-Day veteran; and 27-year-old British author Daisy Johnson's Greek tragedy-inspired family saga Everything Under.
Founded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize was originally open to British, Irish and Commonwealth writers. Americans have been eligible since 2014, and there have been two consecutive American winners – Paul Beatty's The Sellout in 2016 and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017.
Mr Appiah assured that neither the nationality nor the gender of authors was a factor in the judges' deliberations on the shortlist of four female authors and two men.
“If we had been drifting towards thinking that one of the men on the list was the best one, I wouldn’t have said ‘No guys, we’re going to get in trouble for this’ any more than if we’d been drifting towards an American,” he said. “We picked the one ... most deserving of the prize.”
The Man Booker has a reputation for transforming writers' careers, and the one who will emerge from the field to beat other finalists is always subject to intense speculation. Previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Arundhati Roy and Hilary Mantel.
It is likely to bring a big boost to Ms Burns, who is 56-years-old and has two previous published novels, but is hardly a household name.
Milkman appears on the printed page as a continuous torrent with few paragraph marks, which has led some to label it experimental and challenging. But Mr Appiah said the vivid, distinctive Belfast language in Burns' book was "really worth savouring."
“If you’re having difficulty, try reading it out loud,” he said. “The pleasure of it really has to do with the way that it sounds.
“It’s challenging in the way a walk up [Mount] Snowdon is challenging. It’s definitely worth it, because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”