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Wednesday 19 June 2019

Low-profile literary purist gatecrashes Booker party

The shortlisted candidates for the 2007 Man Booker Prize stand with their books in London's Hatchard Bookshop. From left to right are Nicola Barker, Mohsin Hamid, Indra Sinha, winner Anne Enright, Lloyd Jones and Ian McEwan.
The shortlisted candidates for the 2007 Man Booker Prize stand with their books in London's Hatchard Bookshop. From left to right are Nicola Barker, Mohsin Hamid, Indra Sinha, winner Anne Enright, Lloyd Jones and Ian McEwan.

Compared with previous Irish Booker winners Roddy Doyle and John Banville, Anne Enright is relatively unknown outside Ireland. In fact even inside Ireland her profile has not been that high. The reason? She is a serious, literary writer whose books are very good but do not sell in large quantities.

Her triumph last night in taking the 2007 Man Booker prize means that is about to change.

‘The Gathering’, the novel which has won her the prize, was published in May and went on the bestseller list here a few weeks ago when it made the Booker shortlist. Sales will now go through the roof, not just here but on the international market as well.

It could not have happened to a more deserving writer, someone who takes what they do very seriously, who does not compromise and who works extremely hard.

And it comes at the right time for her. She is 45 this year, the perfect age, she believes, for writing novels.

Her first book was a collection of short stories called ‘The Portable Virgin’, which won the Rooney Prize in 1991 and got her going as a writer.

But short stories are for young writers, she says, and middle age is the best time for novels.

It takes time to develop the necessary skills and the insight. Five years ago, when she passed 40, she said that she felt “old enough now to enjoy the facility that I have”. But she worried that “facility is the enemy of talent in a way. There are lots of people who can be clever with words, which is different from being right with them.”

For a beautiful writer like Enright, whose prose resonates with the reader long after the book has been closed, this concern with precision is indicative of the kind of writer she is.

It’s not enough for her just to write beautifully. It’s even more important to write accurately, with intensity and insight. And it is this quality in her writing that marks her out as one of the leading Irish writers of her generation, the one that came after Banville and Toibin.

‘The Gathering’ is her fourth novel and is a good example of the kind of writer she is. The title refers to a funeral.

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam, the unfortunate one with the drink problem who could not cope with life and had walked into the sea in England with his pockets full of stones.

The story is told by his sister Veronica. She knows that behind his drink problem there was something else, something that happened to him back in 1968 in Ireland, when he was a boy in his grandmother’s house; a family secret.

The novel delves deep into the family psyche and sexual history over three generations, showing how secrets fester over time and memories become twisted and unreliable.

Enright’s intense writing lays bare the reality, sometimes the emptiness, beneath the surface. It is a brilliant but sombre meditation on how families behave and the relationships between siblings.

It’s a very dark book and Enright has made clear that it’s not based on anything that happened within her own family.

She says the Hegartys and the wayward son Liam just came to her. She is interested in the dynamics of families and cause and effect, the way particular events can change things forever.

She says the issues in the book – abuse and suicide – have been “in the air so much here in Ireland that it behoves us, especially writers, to deal with them.”

Even though her profile has been relatively low in Britain, she has always been popular with the critics there and this may partly explain why she has taken the Man Booker prize this year.

In ‘The Guardian’, for example, the novelist AL Kennedy gave ‘The Gathering’ a rave review last May, saying that it was “a genuine attempt to stare down both love and death, to anatomise their pains and fears and peculiar pleasures”.

In the lengthy review Kennedy also complimented Enright on the precision of her writing and the accuracy of her insight.

This is yet another year when the favourite has not taken the prize. Ian McEwan was regarded as a certainty by some for ‘On Chesil Beach’, although that was a novella masquerading as a novel, and the hot outsiders were ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Mr Pip’ by two lesser known writers.

Enright, who was born in Dublin in 1962, is married with two children and lives in Bray, Co Wicklow.

After an interesting earlier life that included working in RTE as a producer on the ground-breaking ‘Nighthawks’ for four years, she has been writing full time for almost 15 years.

She left, she says, because she wanted to write but also because she sensed (correctly) that RTE would never do another programme that was as cutting edge as ‘Nighthawks’.

Her book of short stories and her three earlier novels were all widely praised. And her non-fiction book on motherhood ‘Making Babies’ was acclaimed both here and in the UK.

Her stories have appeared in publications like ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘The Paris Review’.

Enright’s work has some of the lyricism of past writers like McGahern, but it usually comes with a twist, sometimes a nasty twist, reflecting our often difficult past and the stressed zeitgeist of the country today.

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