“Being part of a family is the most excruciating way to be alive,” says Veronica Hagerty, the narrator of Enright’s Booker Prize winner. Hers—family that is—included 12 life births and seven miscarriages. Her vague “Mammy” and embarrassingly sexual father (responsible for a number of infidelities as well as nearly 20 conceptions with his wife) were better at reproducing than nurturing. Veronica was somewhere in the middle of the tribe, closest to Liam, one year older, whose suicide and its effect on the narrator and her family is the focus on this novel. Liam walked into the sea Virginia Wolfe style, stones in his pockets while Veronica is married to a successful businessman in an open-plan house decorated in “oatmeal, cream, sandstone and slate”.
Initially I hated the book, not the least in the mood for a self-indulgent narrator wallowing in grief, for her brother and for a family where she—and the others—were mostly lost. The review that made most sense to me (Peter Behrens in The Washington Post) compared the voice to Joan Didion’s “furious, cool grief” and the book itself to Joyce’s Dubliners. Even saw the novel as an updated Dubliners, needed because Ireland has changed so radically in the lifetime of adults like Veronica—born probably at the dawn of the 60ies—that Joyce wouldn’t recognize it.
Veronica is the one who goes to Brighton to reclaim the body and bring it home for burial. The wake, funeral mass and burial are at the center of what action there is in the novel, with all digressions leading expertly backwards and forwards from there, mostly back…. (Enright manages time most skillfully as she manages the narrative voice which, whether or not I like the novel—and I’m not sure about that—I admire.) The rituals of the old Ireland persist, but no one Veronica knows believes them, even the brother who’s a priest in Australia and who participates in his embroidered robes at the funeral mass. It’s painfully obvious that religion does not keep the family together, not so obvious that love does. However dysfunctional the family, and however dispersed, now that all are grown up, even middle aged, the family ties, for better and for worse, are strong. Mammy is still there—fading and out of touch, but not a lot more than she always was; it’s clearly not she who keeps them together, though she does still keep the house where they all grew up, providing the scene for the viewing and wake. What Veronica, who always felt marginal around her mother, remembers most about her from childhood was “Don’t tell Mammy”, uttered by her father or siblings on just about every occasion where anything happened.
A significant part of the novel is devoted to Grandma Ada with whom Liam and Veronica and Kitty live for awhile when Veronica is 8. Her reconstructions of her grandmother’s life tell me about Veronica than about her grandmother, but are based on the fact that there was clearly “another man” in Ada’s life, Lambert Nugent, who wanted to marry her and became her not especially kind landlord. Ruminating on that lost time in her childhood, Veronica remembers walking into Ada’s “good room” and seeing Liam in a sexual act with Nugent. She allows for the fact that she might be mistaken but she’s more troubled by the fact that her concealment may have helped precipitate Liam into a wasted and drunken life and ultimately into suicide.
Joyce wrote of Dubliners: “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life.” That seems not terribly far from what Enright had in mind for this novel.