Booker Prize winner Burns centre stage for Belfast homecoming
A packed Lyric theatre last night embraced Anna Burns, Booker prize winner, for her novel Milkman.
The book has been described as a difficult read. Comic Nuala McKeever said it "perfectly encapsulated the claustrophobia it described".
But when read by the author from the Belfast theatre's stage, the story elicited hoots of laughter and the convoluted language was revealed as a joke.
The book is an horrific account of how a tense and defensive community shuts out those it perceives as oddities. The grim Milkman character stalks a vulnerable teenager, closing in on her, denying her the option of being herself, so that she even loses the freedom to say no to him.
In a sense, that girl's revenge is the depiction of a stunted community as hilarious.
This event was a big occasion because it was Burns's first reading in the city since she won the top literary award.
She was on stage with another Irish Booker winner, Anne Enright, who won it 12 years ago for her novel The Gathering.
Burns described her writing method, how she receives her books, presumably from her unconscious, and sometimes simply transcribes scenes dictated to her.
"It's brilliant," joked Enright. "I wish it would happen to me."
But Burns replied that it can be difficult to persuade a publisher to give you an advance on an unwritten novel, just because you "feel the undercurrent" that tells you it is ready to be written, that the voices are coming through.
There was a strong sense of occasion about last night.
Most Belfast writers were there. Jan Carson, who has written a similarly bizarre book set in east Belfast, The Fire Starters, said: "I think for a lot of us it was just simply inspiring to see someone from here on a platform where they were being engaged with and listened to internationally.
"It really raised the stakes for a lot of us."
Annie McCartney, another local novelist, said she was proud that someone from here had won the Booker. She said: "Jeez, I wish I had written it."
And Angelina Fusco, a former head of news at the BBC locally, said: "I think it was an unusual book that brought me back to being a teenager during the Troubles. And her being a nameless person, you could just fit yourself into parts of her life. And you forgot about how small the world was, even in terms of streets and corners. Thankfully we're past that now, but it was really fascinating."
Burns's book has been widely admired for its courageous depiction of the constraints imposed within a north Belfast republican community.
Though the account of life in that community is presented in exaggerated and bizarre form, it strangely rings true and familiar.
"I found it sometimes hard to breathe in the novel," said Roisin McDonagh of the Arts Council, which organised the event.
But when Burns walked onto the stage, in an almost slack and casual way, and speaking in a raw Belfast accent, without affectation, reading segments of the story, Milkman came alive as funnier than anyone had expected.
The black humour was clear to a reader, but when she was reading aloud the bits that most rankled with some of the critics, because of the repetition and extravagant language, the audience responded as if to a stand-up comedian.
And at the end, the Lyric Theatre audience gave Anna Burns a standing ovation.