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For this writer, identity is subject to change

Anne Enright pushes back against the past

Irish novelist Anne Enright was the long-shot winner last fall of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for 'The Gathering.' Irish novelist Anne Enright was the long-shot winner last fall of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for "The Gathering." (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / February 27, 2008

BROOKLINE - Critics use vigorous words to describe Irish writer Anne Enright's style - bleak, grim, muscular, glittering, dark, deft, vivid. Meeting her for an interview, one could easily see why. Her personal manner is as sharp and energetic as her writing, full of annealed opinions and spiced by flights of laughter. She was in town to promote her novel "The Gathering," which last fall won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the foremost literary award in Britain and Ireland.

The book's narrator is Veronica Hegarty, a 39-year-old Dublin wife and mother devastated by the suicide of her alcoholic brother, Liam. She travels to England to collect the body, and, back at home, the nine surviving Hegarty siblings and their mother convene for the wake and funeral. The heart of the story is Veronica's bitter and anguished remembrance of hers and Liam's childhoods, and her struggle to certify the truth of a terrible memory. Meanwhile, her marriage is crashing and sex has become repellent to her.

Although "The Gathering" was the unanimous choice of the Man Booker judges, some British literati derided it as dreary and reader-unfriendly, and the oddsmakers had rated it a long shot. After she won, Enright dismissed the bookies' surprise: "They don't read, so how would they know?"

Enright, 45, lives near Dublin and is married to theater director Martin Murphy, and has a son and daughter, ages 7 and 5. She has published a volume of short stories, three previous novels, and a nonfiction book, "Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood." A rarity among fiction writers, she reads her own work aloud like a gifted actor.

Q. Is there a particular burden in being an Irish writer?

A. I find being Irish quite a wearing thing. It takes so much work because it is a social construction. People think you are going to be this, this, and this. I can't think of anything you might say about Irish people that is absolutely true. [Irish writer John McGahern, who died in 2006] was an immensely angry, dangerous, and subversive writer. But he was domesticated by the Irish academy incredibly fast. There's the idea of the "authentic Irish" that he keys into. As a writer, I'm pushing against that.

Q. Where does the idea of "authentic" Irishness come from?

A. From the diaspora. They dreamt about Ireland and reinvented it. Ireland is a series of stories that have been told to us, starting with the Irish Celtic national revival. I never believed in "Old Ireland." It has been made all of kitsch by the diaspora, looking back and deciding what Ireland is. Yes, it is green. Yes, it is friendly. I can't think of anything else for definite.

Q. Doesn't every writer have to push against her predecessors?

A. Yes, every writer is saying, "not true, not true." You are rejecting as well as embracing other writers. My life has changed so much since I've had a family that I'm looking for new writers. Recently I read the stories I wrote in my early 20s, to put in a volume. And here is this brittle young woman, writing about marriage as, not the worst thing, but the most boring thing that could happen to a person. Now I think I was wrong. I like to be proven wrong. It is always interesting to find that there is something you don't know, some groove you have got into that you can't see over the edge of.

Q. Almost every review of an Irish writer's work makes comparisons to James Joyce. Is it hard to get away from him?

A. I don't want to get away from him. It's male writers who have a problem with Joyce; they're all "in the long shadow of Joyce, and who can step into his shoes?" I don't want any shoes, thank you very much. Joyce made everything possible; he opened all the doors and windows. Also, I have a very strong theory that he was actually a woman. He wrote endlessly introspective and domestic things, which is the accusation made about women writers - there's no action and nothing happens. Then you look at "Ulysses" and say, well, he was a girl, that was his secret.

Q. Some critics call "The Gathering" grim and depressing, but it's not a pessimistic book. Veronica says, "I am waiting for things to become clear."

A. No, it's more like, stuff happens. She locates her anger and pain in the wrong places, quite often. I am recently very grumpy about the function of unhappiness in writers. You read books that essentially are, "Life is terrible, and then it gets worse." That is the European misery. I hate that, since I think unhappiness is more a mood than a truth. When you are unhappy, you are convinced that things are closed, there's no way out. Unhappiness is very solipsistic. To me, it's not the truth. It's not Veronica's truth, either.

Q. She is thinking obsessively about sex throughout the book, with a kind of revulsion.

A. Well, it's about sex. It's sort of like, she is off sex for the duration of the book. But it's about monsters, you know. I have written very cheerfully about sex in a lot of books, so I thought there would be no harm in going over to the dark side.

Q. Had you always wanted to be a writer?

A. I just went along with it - it was an arranged marriage. It was assumed by teachers and my parents. Writing is very pleasurable; I do enjoy it. When you are actually writing, you're in the process, and it's about flow - you're in a place without mirrors. What you're interested in is not how you're doing this but the thing itself, and so it's a kind of loss of self-consciousness, and fantastic freedom. That initial phase is gorgeous, but most of writing is rewriting, and that is difficult and anxious.

Q. Do you find yourself wishing you could rewrite after the book is published?

A. It takes a while to get out of a book, for it to die. It's like the letter you haven't answered that's on the kitchen counter, the receipt you haven't filed - you have to wait six months before you can throw the damn thing in the bin. Books take time to die. This one hasn't died for me yet.

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

Click the play button to hear Anne Enright read from "The Gathering." Please note: Audio may take a moment to load.

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