This book, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is described on the cover as ‘Witty, original, inventive … utterly compelling’. I didn’t find it so. I didn’t much like it. Why do I feel so differently from experienced critics and readers like the Man Booker judges?
The story is narrated by Veronica, one of a large, dysfunctional Irish family, (‘why are we all so fucked’), and deals with how she reacts to the suicide of her younger brother, Liam. The book is about feelings, emotions, memories and relationships. The narrative wanders from past to present and from real to imagined, the boundaries of the latter not always being clear. The ‘gathering’ of the family for Liam’s funeral could be considered the climax of the book, though Enright undermines any sense of this by describing much earlier in the story some of what happens after the family meets for the funeral. ‘The seeds of my brother’s death were sown long ago’, she says, and for much of the book she is casting about for someone to blame for what took place. But she is not even certain that the incident she considers vital really did happen. And of course she blames herself: she is ‘looking for the point where she betrayed her own brother’.
This is no doubt a very credible evocation of how someone who is unhappy, unbalanced even, and dissatisfied with their life might feel, and Enright deserves credit for a sensitive portrayal of this state. She is in general in control of her material, and the changes between past and present – or imagined past and dream-like present – are handled well. By the end, it is possible to see shape in what seems initially a shapeless account. And though there are things I don’t like about her writing style, it can be arresting, as for example in the following passage. ‘There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six. There were girls with seven or eight – which was thought a little enthusiastic – and then there were the pathetic ones, like me, who had parents who were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit.’ That last word explodes like a little bomb.
Now for what I don’t like. Enright’s writing is often described as lyrical, which I take to mean that she sometimes writes metaphorically, as in: ‘The air between them was too thin for love. The only thing that can be thrown across the air of Dublin town is a kind of jeering.’ Whether or not you like this kind of writing is probably a matter of taste – and I don’t. The Man Booker judges apparently do.
I’ve acknowledged that the story has a structure which contains its disparate nature, but I don’t feel the resolution, such as it is, really resolves anything. This is partly an issue for me of organisation, and partly of moral content. I’m left at the end with a sense of anti climax.
Then there is the question of whether Veronica is a character the reader can engage with. You don’t have to like a character, but where a book is so dominated by one narrator, you do have to be intrigued, even fascinated by her. And I’m not. I found myself thinking ‘get over it’, as she drove – well over 0.05 – around Dublin in the middle of the night, no doubt echoing her inner journey of discovery. Her insight that she is somehow living her life ‘in inverted commas’ only made me shrug. Her weighty pronouncement on her grandmother that ‘For a woman like Ada, every choice is an error, as soon as it is made’ seemed merely pretentious. It’s true she is self aware and mocking at times, but even that doesn’t endear her to me. Exploring the love/hate relationship she has with her siblings – Liam included – should be stimulating. I find it merely unrealistic. But I know that lots of other people would disagree with me, and even label me un-empathetic.
An author can reasonably expect a literate and empathetic reader, and readers can expect that good literature will engage them. And here we have the old problem: if it doesn’t happen, is it anyone’s fault? Is one side or the other deficient? Or is it just a matter of personal preference?