Anne Enright - The Booker Babe
Anne Enright: Keeping faith with a lively imagination, and intense commitment to language, narrative and character
By Mary Coll
Pictures of Anne Enright, published since she won the Man Booker prize for her most recent novel The Gathering, show her grinning with unashamed delight, which is a bit of a change from the more pensive images that traditionally accompany newspaper articles relating to her and her work. The apparent dark horse of the short list, whom most literary critics expected to retire into the sunset, stunned them instead by a spirited charge for the final fence, thus demolishing hopes for establishment favourites such as Ian McEwan and Lloyd Jones. Subsequent coverage almost implies that she has been camping out in the winners enclosure in an unsavoury manner ever since, waving her £50,000 cheque and a mile wide smile, as if the sheer enjoyment of success is a little undignified, indeed unmerited.
Anne Enright certainly appears to be the happiest winner of the prize in recent memory, her predecessors having traditionally adopted a pose of studied surprise and more than a little faux humility. Jumping on the tables and doing the rumba in your high heels and new purple dress is not quite the done thing at the Man Booker, but for one brief moment after her name was announced I wondered if Anne Enright just might. She's that kind of writer, always has been, looks serious on the cover, is serious, goes fearlessly to the heart of all the big themes; love, motherhood, family, death, desire, sex and religion, rages, kicks, gives it her all, and then knocks you off guard with a raucous irreverent laugh that's all the more powerful for it's apparent incongruity. Like laughing at a funeral, or at Mass, as she herself might suggest. Hardly surprising then that some critics were more than a little miffed.
Not that winning awards is all that unusual for her, having won The Rooney Prize for her 1991 collection of short stories The Portable Virgin and Encore prize for her novel What Are You Like, as well as the inaugural Davey Byrnes award for her short story ‘Honey', Anne Enright has been quietly squirreling away all the serious trophies for fiction ever since she changed careers in the 1990's from that of Producer with RTE television to writer-in-residence in her own front room.
A philosophy graduate from Trinity College, as well as an MA post- graduate of the prestigious University of East Anglia Creative Writing Course, where she was tutored by novelists such as Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury, her voice has been clear and unambiguous from the outset possessing a disarming candour and almost reckless commitment to telling it as it is. A risky business at times, but hugely enjoyable, especially for readers who have followed her Diary contributions to the London Review of Books over the past number of years. Regularly pondering an impossibly eclectic range of subjects as varied as the use of the Internet, her young children's growing religious beliefs, and in October 2000, on the perils of breastfeeding where she admits that
“Actually, you know, breastfeeding hurts. Certainly, at first, it really fucking hurts. On the third night of her life, I was left with a human being the size of a cat and nothing to sustain her but this stub…so there we were in the hospital dark, me and my white Dracula, her chin running with milk and her eyes black.”
The Diary has often had the impact of a hurricane rather than a breath of fresh air on this highly rarefied literary micro climate, but never more so than with her most recent essay entitled ‘Disliking the McCann's', published on 4 October, which would surely have slipped entirely under the media radar had she not made the fatal mistake of following it immediately with a Man Booker prize win. Staying entirely true to form, she uses the article to consider the rollercoaster of conflicting emotions most reasonable people, including herself, have experienced in relation to this extraordinary saga, alternating between sympathy for the family, to uneasy suspicion, with a liberal dose of amateur Miss Marple forensic expertise and a vague whiff of the village mob. Nothing she say's is all that outrageous and indeed she concludes with an admission that “then I go to bed and wake up the next day, human again, liking the McCann's”. But her apparent audacity at daring to touch this sensitive issue caused immediate outrage among the British media. Both The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, described it as an outright attack; they cherry picked the most provocative quotations for some cut and paste articles that made Anne Enright out to be cold as ice and as hard as nails, thereby prompting the vaguest suspicion of a sour grapes response to an Irish “rank outsiders” cheek in snatching the Man Booker from one of the local chaps. It's unlikely to upset this hugely pragmatic writer, who understands more than most how the world of the media operates and who experienced her own share of emotional ups and downs during her years at the coalface in television, leading her to conclude in a post Man Booker interview with the Guardian's Stuart Jeffries that it's better to have a breakdown early on in life so that at least you have time to get over it.
“If your life falls apart early on you can put it together again.”
Precisely the kind of optimism demonstrated by Veronica Hegarty, the central character of The Gathering, Anne Enright's Man Booker award winning family saga, which for all the reviews warning readers of it's bleakness and darkness is actually a remarkably warm, tender, and beguilingly optimistic novel, with a rich vein of humour and a healthy irreverence for all the Irish sacred cows, mad and all as they can be. For those familiar with Anne Enright's writing it keeps faith with the lively imagination, and intense commitment to language, narrative and character they are accustomed to, and so perhaps they, her readers, were the least surprised of all to see her rise to receive her award in the Guildhall last week, which is how it should be.
Born 11 October 1962 in Dublin, Anne began writing when her family gave her an electric typewriter for her 21st birthday. She did a degree in English and philosophy at Trinity. She did an MA at the University of East Anglia. She was a TV producer and director at RTÉ for six years, where she produced Nighthawks for four years and worked in children's programming for two years.
She lives in Bray, County Wicklow. She is married to Martin Murphy, who is director of the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. They have two children.
Her first novel, The Wig My Father Wore, was published in 1995. Then What Are You Like? in 2000. This was short-listed in the novel category of the Whitbread Awards. After that, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch in 2002, a fictionalised account of the life of Eliza Lynch, an Irish woman who was the consort of Paraguayan president Francisco Solano López and became Paraguay's most powerful woman in the 19th century.