Review: In conversation with Anna Burns at Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Man Booker Prize-winning author Anna Burns was given a warm welcome home at Belfast's Lyric Theatre. Picture by Brian Morrison
Robert McMillen

In Conversation With Anna Burns  at Lyric Theatre, Belfast

IT was the equivalent of the cup-winning team coming home after an unexpected victory.

Anna Burns, surprise winner of the Man Booker prize in 2018, was back in her home city to talk about Milkman - the Belfast-set novel which has gained her a worldwide reputation - in an interview with fellow Booker winner Anne Enright.

There was no open-top bus but the Lyric Theatre was full to the brim with fans of the Ardoyne-born writer, your typical overnight success after years of hard graft.

Despite the critical success of previous novels No Bones in 2001 and 2007’s Little Constructions, Burns always seemed under the public radar, even in her native city, although the Arts Council’s Damian Smyth did point to her emerging talent back in 2002.

The narrator of her award-winning and life-changing novel, known only as middle sister, attracts the opprobrium of the community by doing the unimaginable - she reads while walking.

“She is a beyond and beyonds are seen as dangerous so her reading while walking is seen as more dangerous than Semtex,” Burns says of her creation, after reading a hilarious if close to home extract on the relative acceptability of someone carrying a book or carrying the aforementioned Czech explosive.

As Enright pointed out, there are different kinds of “outsides” in Milkman - “across the water” and “across the road” respectively describing the national and religious divides.

“Then there is the divides inside each person, the self-policing as to what would not be acceptable in the community, but it’s all done sub-consciously” adds Burns, who was seven when the Troubles broke out in 1969.

With political violence widespread in Ardoyne, Burns hated school, especially when she got to secondary school. "It was such a violent environment,” she recalled.

“I used to mitch off and go and read my books and I could not wait to leave, and it was the happiest day of my life when I finally did leave June 1978 – and then in September, I joined night classes in Rupert Stanley and The College of Business Studies!” she laughs.

It was there that teacher Pat McCann inspired her to become the writer she is today.

With a mixture of anecdotes, literary criticism and hilarious readings it's no wonder that Burns got a standing ovation at the end.

Anna Burns (right) with fellow Irish Booker Prize winner Anne Enright. Picture by Brian Morrison

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