Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Enright's Gathering

This 2007 Booker Prize winner is maybe a little over-hyped, but that's the only bad thing I'll say about it. Anne Enright's style is both flowing naturalism and clipped impatience, psychological insight is achieved through a fearless candor and character development set on the frame of a very simple story. Veronica Hegarty is the eighth of twelve children of a lower-middle class Dublin family, born across the upwardly-mobile 50s and 60s from Ada and Charlie, the parents who grew up in another world.

It is a story about the anger of a modern Irish woman who sees a family of twelve children as, if not a crime, a towering negligence. Her mother's lack of self-determination, and therefore of responsibility towards her children, is what the daughter cannot forgive, and the central event of the story, now long past, adds a concrete dimension to Ada's guilt even as it reveals her as a victim of classic injustice. Now Veronica is in her late 30s, the wife of a professional man and a mother of two daughters of her own. The death of her brother Liam, next older than her in birth order and her childhood companion, precipitates her own confrontation with her unhappiness and disappointment as she retrieves his body from England and works through the reunion of her mother and the nine remaining siblings for Liam's wake and funeral.

Veronica is thoroughly modern, at least she certainly seems to be, but one is soon struck by how she epitomizes basic themes of twentieth-century Irish life. She is conflicted about and fixated on sex and particularly the sexual nature of the male, her consciousness of the male body around her brings to mind Molly Bloom's awful hatrack. There are even observations of rich and carefree Americans that could have been made thirty years before (I thought of The Quiet Man). A long-ago relationship with an American during her college years still haunts her as she wonders if he was her true love, but as with all such totems of memory this one has more to do with her present dissatisfaction than with anything else. The legacy of Irish history and the legacy of Catholicism cannot be left behind for her generation; she will leave her marriage but she will not leave Dublin or her family, although she is constantly physically acting out escape (her husband is by now used to her simply driving off after a fight).

This book is part of a discernible trend in recent Irish writing, an insistence that the Irish gaze must be turned now forward, a resistance to the traditional Irish trope of a longing backwards for a lost world and a new determination for reinvention. Another example published this year is Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home, also see Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland (2004), a thorough history of the emergence of Ireland as a modern nation that also documents a forward evolution.

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