/ 19 October 2007

Booked by an outsider

Against all the odds, and seeing off competition from favourites Ian McEwan and Lloyd Jones, rank outsider Anne Enright was this week awarded the Man Booker prize for her ‘powerful, uncomfortable and even at times angry book”, The Gathering.

Howard Davies, chair of the panel, described it as ‘an unflinching look at a grieving family in tough and striking language”. No picnic, it was described by the Observer critic as ‘a story of family dysfunction, made distinctive by an exhilarating bleakness of tone”.

Davies said: ‘It’s accessible. It’s somewhat bitter — but it’s perfectly accessible. People will be pretty excited by it when they read it.”

She herself said on radio: ‘When people pick up a book they may want something happy that will cheer them up. In that case they shouldn’t really pick up my book. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.”

Enright wins a total of £52 500, including the £2 500 accorded to each shortlisted writer.

McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Jones’s Master Pip were the novels vying for position as bookies’ favourite in the weeks leading up to this week’s announcement.

The judging process was, Davies said, ‘tight”. Every book ‘had its advocate for the prize”. He described the judges as ‘a congenial group of people” but not necessarily one from whom consensus easily flowed.

Accordingly, as befits the director of the London School of Economics, he devised what he called an ingenious selection of voting systems: a weighted system, a simple ranking system and single transferable vote. Each confirmed Enright as the winner.

The Gathering is narrated by Veronica, as she prepares for the funeral of Liam, one of her many larger-than-life unruly siblings.

The novel casts back down the generations as Veronica — apparently leading a calm, stable, successful life as a well-off wife and mother — attempts to make sense of her turbulent, fragile, extreme history and that of her dysfunctional clan.

AL Kennedy, reviewing the book in the Guardian, wrote: ‘Enright’s work is neither mindless nor inhuman; it is clearly the product of a remarkable intelligence, combined with a gift for observation and deduction. She has uncovered the truth that sometimes our great adventures are interior.”

A Dubliner — and the second Irish writer to win recently after John Banville took the prize in 2005 — Enright studied philosophy at Trinity College before working for broadcaster RTE as a producer. These were stressful years and Enright struggled with depression. She has said: ‘I heartily recommend having a breakdown young. Because then you make your decisions and get on with it. I see people who are in permanent crisis, like a chronically faulty car. The exhaust is permanently hanging off the back of their life. If the car broke down completely, they’d have to get it fixed. There would be no more messing.”

She left her job and began to write; first a well-received collection of stories called The Portable Virgin, then three novels and a non-fiction work, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, in 2004.

McEwan may take comfort from his incredibly healthy sales. On Chesil Beach is far outselling the other books on the shortlist combined (not to mention the surge of sales for Atonement in the wake of Joe Wright’s film).

This year’s judges, chaired by Davies, are poet Wendy Cope, author and journalist Giles Foden, biographer and critic Ruth Scurr and actor Imogen Stubbs. Last year’s Man Booker prize-winner was Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. —