A book that deserves the prize it won

Review Novel

October 21, 2007|By Tim Rutten | Tim Rutten,Los Angeles Times

The Gathering

By Anne Enright

Black Cat-Grove Press / 272 pages / $14

Anne Enright is part of a remarkable generation of Irish writers who have helped transform their country's literature as surely as globalization has transformed their nation's economy. In some ways, the process has been remarkably similar - an enthusiasm for and immersion in foreign influence carried home to make Ireland's insularity no more than a geographic fact, at last.

Like her contemporaries John Banville and Colm Toibin, Enright has been frank about the influence of American writers - particularly Don DeLillo, in her case - on her work. In fact, when he came to praise The Gathering as the finest of Enright's four novels so far - which it surely is - Toibin adjudged her style "as sharp as Joan Didion's; the scope of her understanding is as wide as Alice Munro's; her sympathy for her characters is as tender and subtle as Alice McDermott's."

High praise from a writer immune to Celtic extravagance, but others share the opinion, since The Gathering was awarded the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, last week. It was a worthy choice, since Enright has written a wonderfully elegant and unsparing novel that takes the old Irish subjects of family dysfunction and the vagaries of memory into territory made fresh by an objectivity so precise it seems almost loving in its care.

Veronica Hegarty is a prototypical new Irish wife and mother, prosperous with two small and loving daughters, a devoted husband, a suburban house with a new Saab in the driveway. Her own sprawling family is another matter entirely. Veronica is one of 10 living brothers and sisters. Two others have died and seven miscarried in the womb. Her ineffectual father is long dead and her mother has receded into what seems a haze of post-procreative trauma. All of this is brought forcefully to the fore when Veronica's favorite sibling, the alcoholic Liam, fills his pockets with rocks and walks into the sea at Brighton in one of his wasted life's few well-planned, successful exercises.

From the moment she undertakes to tell her mother what has occurred, through Liam's funeral and its personally traumatic aftermath, Veronica's memories - and life - slowly dissolve into what might be called a haze of understanding, as she tries to work out her own past and that of her family. Liam and Veronica had grown particularly close and had come to share a corrosive secret while living for a time with their grandmother Ada, and as she pursues her own and Liam's pasts, Veronica interweaves a half-imagined account of her grandmother's life and of its intersection with her own.

Here is Veronica's description of Liam - recognizable to anybody who ever has dealt with that most frustrating of creatures, the smart and charming addict/alcoholic: "This was not the first time I left my brother, and it would not be the last. In his later, drinking years, I left him every time he arrived. But even before he hit the bottle, there were times when I just had to roll my eyes and walk away.

"The problem with Liam was never something big. The problem with Liam was always a hundred small things. ... For someone who was blunderingly stupid most all of the time, my brother was very astute. And what he was astute about were other people's lives, their weaknesses and hopes, the little lies they like to tell themselves about why and whether they should ever get out of bed. This was Liam's great talent - exposing the lie.

"Drink made him vicious, but even sober he could smell what was going on in a room, I swear it ... because the place Liam worked best was under your skin."

One of Enright's great strengths is her ability to take the conventions, stage settings and stock characters of Irish fiction and dip them in the acid of a sensibility utterly immune to piety or cant, religious or cultural. This is work as suspicious of the newly unsentimental, tell-all Ireland as it is of the "Hidden Ireland's" old reticence and verities. Experienced readers will recognize a lot of Irish types and tropes in an Enright novel, then realize they've never seen them in this light before. Thus, while the now requisite, long-hidden sexual trauma seems to be near the heart of Veronica's narrative - and a slow deconstruction of memory and self - there is too much ambiguity of cause-and-effect to turn recollection into diagnosis.

One of the small miracles of Enright's prose occurs when her stunning control and flawless eye merge to create scenes in which emotional valence and ruthlessly edited physical detail invoke the simultaneity of inner and outer experience.

Prizes are what they are, but even if she hadn't won the Booker, I would cast my vote for a novelist who - having written a collection of essays on motherhood - could put these thoughts about her children in the head of The Gathering's Veronica: "Are they good children? In the main. Though Emily is a bit of a cat and cats, I always think, only jump into your lap to check if you are cold enough, yet, to eat."

Timothy Rutten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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