Under my byline

A prize-winning family saga

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 21 October 2007

Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize

Short stories are for young writers, and middle age is the time for novels, says Anne Enright, who’s 45 and just won the Man Booker Prize for 2007 for her novel The Gathering. She was not the favourite to win, so her husband made excellent money by placing a bet on her at long odds. Perhaps he should have bet more.

Enright is only the third Irish writer to win the prize since it was instituted in 1969 —the others are John Banville and Roddy Doyle and, if you accept an Irish newspaper’s proud claim, Iris Murdoch, who was born in Ireland. Enright was born and grew up there, and lives there now, in a small seaside town called Bray in County Wicklow, where she is a local celebrity.

In her winning book, the protagonist Veronica and the rest of the Hegarty family gather at home in Dublin for the funeral of her brother Liam, an alcoholic who killed himself by walking into the sea at Brighton, his pockets laden with stones. Liam was the sibling closest to Veronica, and for her it is a tremendous loss. Violently resenting the others in her numerous family for their failure to properly acknowledge this tragedy, but unable to do anything about it, and aware of stirrings in her childhood memories that offer clues to what went wrong in her brother’s life, Veronica is shocked out of her own existence as a well-off Dublin housewife with a waning marriage and two young daughters of her own, into that critical period of the past during which Liam’s life was shaped.

Most of the themes and currents of Enright’s writings over the past two decades are visible in this bald summary: family, memory (real and imagined), the kind of loss that breaks and reshapes identity, childhood, sex, even the slightly fundamentalist Catholicism without which so many writers —and not just the Irish — would be incomparably less fruitfully conflicted. But although it sounds depressing, even melodramatic (“I would rather read Schopenhauer while rolling in broken glass,” wrote one nevertheless thrilled reviewer), the quality of Enright’s writing and her deft touch usually turn aside the heavy arrow of terminal despair with a bit of quiet humour — not comedy, but the kind of subtly wry twist that comes purely out of the expert use of language. It reminds the reader that the author is present and awake, when he might have forgotten her altogether.

And this is important because Enright, in her fiction, writes as nearly transparently as is possible outside a whodunit. I think the reason is to be found in her non-fiction, such as essays for publications like the London Review of Books, Guardian and New Yorker, and the book that launched her onto the mainstream in 2004 (in a small way, of course), Making Babies, which is a description — harrowing for a man to read! — of her own first experience of motherhood, from pregnancy to birth, breastfeeding and beyond. What’s striking about this work is that it is nothing like the standard baby handbooks — it is unpreachy and unyieldingly honest, not about the physical experience alone but also the cataclysmic effect on a woman’s identity, relationships and memory-making.

In offering no more than the purely subjective experiences of herself or her protagonists, with no ill-disguised attempt to “speak to the crowd”, as it were, Enright forces her reader to follow her. Authenticity of narrated experience allows the reader to recognise and identify what he cannot himself recall. Many reviewers have pointed to the sheer “physicality” of her writing, in which bodily experience provides both the trigger and context for experience in the mind. It is an attribute that gives her writing power, because it reminds us readers of our lack of control over the fundamental conditions of our own existence — and of the vast content of sensual experience that we forget or ignore since it is not uppermost in our largely one-track minds.

Of course there is resolution, even to The Gathering, but it is a quiet and by no means sad one. Things go back to normal — the family stays as it always was, and Veronica settles back into her life. What choice does she have? This sort of thing is true to the often inexplicable bookends to our passions. One might have been a dedicated stamp-collector, for instance, until one’s pet cat died. Enright can use this in her writing, as few others can. I find it quite compelling, and perhaps suitable also in light of the generalised narcissism, self-consciousness and “what makes me tick” character of our times.

BOOKS BY ANNE ENRIGHT

The Portable Virgin (Secker & Warburg 1991)
The Wig My Father Wore (Jonathan Cape 1995)
What Are You Like? (Jonathan Cape 2000)
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (Jonathan Cape 2002)
Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (Jonathan Cape 2004)
The Gathering (Jonathan Cape 2007)

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