A Book Review That Is Really A Commentary : The Man Booker Prize

From The Economist, week of Oct. 20 – 26, 2007:

A review of the Anne Enright novel, The Gathering

In 2004 the judges of the Man Booker prize passed up the chance to honour the sprawling, drunken family as one of the finest pieces of theatre that literature has to offer when it picked Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty over Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go To Bed at Noon. This week a new panel unexpectedly gave fiction’s best-known award to Anne Enright for The Gathering, a raw examination of a family (Irish, of course) made up of 12 children, seven miscarriages and more than a lifetime of drink, masturbation and misery.

In making their choice, the judges turned their backs on three more interesting offerings: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, one of the year’s biggest sellers; Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a fine examination of America’s fear of Islam; and an engaging and original study of the power that literature has to change lives irrevocably (Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pin).

Not that The Gathering is without its strengths. Ms. Enright, the fourth Irish writer to win the prize, is a 45-year-old Dubliner who has written three previous novels, short stories, and a work of non-fiction. She has a fine writing voice and is good at melding raw anger with an original and funny turn of phrase.

At the start of the book, the by-now adult Hegarty children descend on the Irish family home after one of their brothers, Liam, drowns himself in Brighton, having first taken care to remove his dirty socks and underpants, and fill his pockets with stones. In their grief, his siblings look more intently at their past.

Inevitably the family includes one good sister and one bad, a fallen priest and a rich brother who tries to keep his distance from the mess. There are stories of shared beds (probable with 12 children in the house) and a lot of sex. It is this sexual tension, or the tension of unrepressed male lust to be specific, that fuels the book’s anger and drives forward the narrative.

But in the end there is only so much to be learned about fumbling priapic landlords an the stale smell of liquor. For a book that leads with the heart or the brain, rather than the penis, try one of the others on the shortlist instead.

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