A very dark horse

 

Profile Anne EnrightShe has been demonised in the British press over an essay about the McCanns, but its brutal intellectual honesty is the hallmark of surprise Booker Prize winner Anne Enright, writes Kate Holmquist

On Tuesday night, novelist Anne Enright was at the peak of white-hot literary stardom, having won the Man Booker Prize as a rank outsider. By Thursday morning, Sky News was reporting her as "the winner of a prestigious award for novelists" who had "revealed how she takes part in the 'international sport' of disliking Gerry and Kate McCann". Sky was picking up from British newspapers, which had lifted choice quotes from an eloquent, insightful essay by Enright in the London Review of Books about the McCann saga in order to pit mother against mother - the literary witch versus the tabloid heroine.

To summarise her essay (available in full at www.lrb.co.uk), Enright articulated what a lot of people were already thinking, although in typically precocious manner (Enright was shipped off to Canada on a scholarship to a special school for gifted pupils when she was a young teenager) she said she started thinking it before the rest of us. She wrote that the McCanns are so controlled and controlling that they are difficult to like; they left their young children alone in a holiday apartment so that they could go out on the town; they appear to be in denial of their responsibility in this; every parent of young children has fantasised about being in their situation; anyone of any imagination has considered how the McCanns may have accidentally killed and disposed of Madeleine; and Gerry McCann uses cold language when he describes his efforts to manipulate the investigation and the "campaign". Enright concluded that despite all this, she identified with the McCanns as parents going through the greatest hell possible.

Enright's moral point in relation to the McCanns is a theme in her fiction: we're libidinous, changeable creatures who can barely trust ourselves, much less others. Enright is so aware of the darkness within herself that her writing brings readers into the subconscious gloom, giving her a reputation as a challenging writer whose bleak vision is bearable only due to the beauty of her language.

The Gathering concerns the reunion of an extended, dysfunctional family at the wake of an alcoholic brother and uncle who has drowned himself on Brighton beach. The man's sister, Veronica, suspects that her brother's alcoholism has its roots in something terrible in their childhood and starts looking for answers, and the family's many and varied perversions mingle into a kind of shame cocktail.

Enright herself regards her book as being a "girlie" mass-market weepie, written in a literary style. She seems to be proof of the notion that while commercial "women's" fiction must never be too depressing or shocking, a literary writer can be as shocking as she likes.

Admirers regard her as uncompromising, while her detractors accuse her of just showing off. But, whatever critics might think about her fiction (this newspaper's Literary Correspondent Eileen Battersby regards The Gathering as being more "unsettled than unsettling", while the New York Times gave it a rave review), Enright is genuinely shocking in her candour. For example, in the London Review of Books essay she dares venture where few parents would, fantasising about how she might dispose of her own four-year-old if required. She imagines herself bundling her dead child into the spare-wheel compartment of a car boot. It wouldn't be possible to fold that young body into such a small space, she confides in her essay - unless the body was decomposing.

She then adds, with a humour that Enright fans will recognise: "Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me?"

Thanks to the Booker, hundreds of thousands of people won't be passing judgment, necessarily. They'll merely want to say that they possess and have perhaps even read The Gathering. And the publicity over the McCann controversy won't have done her any harm.

In the space of a few weeks, Enright has gone from having sold tens of thousands of copies of her novel to having hundreds of thousands zipping off presses around the world. If ever there's been a literary Joan of Arc, it's Enright, for whom tabloid press immolation seems a straight path to literary sainthood, though she herself would doubtless see this as a facile interpretation.

As she told The Irish Times this week: "A literary prize means nothing compared to the fate of a child in the scheme of things." She added that, "When I wrote the article in the London Review of Books, I had no idea I was going to win the Booker".

BY ENRIGHT'S SIDE, on Tuesday night, was her husband, Martin Murphy, whom she met while earning a degree in English and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, and the other man in her life - her editor, Robin Robertson of Jonathan Cape, a man known to have an "exquisite list" of writers, including Irvine Welsh and AL Kennedy.

It was Robertson who edited and published Enright's first book, The Portable Virgin, in 1991, when she was 29. A collection of short stories, it won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Angela Carter, Enright's teacher at the prestigious creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, described the book as "elegant, scrupulously poised, always intelligent, and not least, original".

The previous year, while working as a producer in RTÉ, Enright had experienced what she has termed a breakdown. She goes back into this disturbed zone when writing, an experience she describes as "like scuba-diving". She told the Guardian this week: "If your life falls apart early, you can just put it back together again. It's the people who are always on the brink who are in trouble."

A friend who has known her since 1985 says: "The breakdown was something she felt intensely but it didn't make anyone panic. I'd say that, at the age of 28, when it occurred, what Anne was coping with was the shock of being a genius. She realised that to fulfil her destiny she was going to have to move out of RTÉ and into a room of her own."

Robertson has been credited with making it possible for her to leave her job in RTÉ and focus on writing. His financial support, through publishing house Jonathan Cape, has contributed to Enright being able to buy a house and afford childminders over the past seven years, so that she can be productive - a gift that close friends see as crucial to her success.

Her first novel was The Wig My Father Wore (1995), a blackly comic romp about a woman who works on a TV game show and has a father who wears a wig that must never be mentioned in his presence. It was short-listed for The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize. In 2000, her novel What Are You Like? won the Royal Society of Authors Encore Prize and was short-listed for the Whitbread prize, and was soon followed by The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) and her memoir Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood (2004).

Enright blossomed with the birth of her children and became so productive that, as she has told friends, "I wrote four books and had two babies in four years. Before that, I would have written four books and gained two stone in four years."

In many ways, Making Babies - a confessional book about the tortures and pleasures of motherhood - was a breakthrough for Enright in that it helped her achieve a deeper emotional intelligence that is reflected in The Gathering.

MANY OF ENRIGHT'S close friends come from her days in Players, the TCD drama society - Lynn Parker, Pauline McLynn and Declan Hughes - and her early career as a producer/director of the anarchic Nighthawks, where she bonded with journalist and writer Ann Marie Hourihane, whom she thanked in her Booker Prize acceptance speech.

Like another supporter, Colm Tóibín, Enright has quietly built up a profile on the international stage, by writing for the New Yorker and the Paris Review and networking in Canada and the US, where she has been feted ever since her Booker nomination.

Enright has a wicked wit and, to those who don't know her well, can appear straightforward to the point of being abrasive. "She is the most loyal, honest, trustworthy person I can think of," says one long-time friend, "but sometimes her honesty can be misinterpreted as arrogance." But she is also incredibly loving, say friends. One of the joys of winning the Booker for Enright was to see her mother, Cora Enright, "rejuvenated" so that she looked "about 52".

Enright is no snob. She regards herself as a "girlie" writer and admires Edna O'Brien, Mary Lavin, Maeve Binchy and, among her contemporaries, Marian Keyes and other Irish female writers who have conquered the mass market. She sees herself as writing about sex, romance, relationships, love and death just as they do, and she wants to give her readers happy endings, even if they have to walk over hot coals to get to them.

Enright is nowhere near her ending, but she has certainly reached a happy middle. "She's never been happier. She's grown happier ever since I've known her," says a friend.

She is delighted that her Booker win is being regarded as a victory for Irish women's fiction and hopes it will inspire more female writers to stop trying to please the market.

"I think that Irish women writers want to please. It's an impulse that I admire . . . I think that sad books are more important than happy books and that goes towards the male imagination, but my imagination is not male. In life one of my great ambitions is to reach the happy ending, the resolution and the joy."

The Enright File

Who is she?Irish novelist and short story writer.

Why is she in the news?She surprised the literary world this week when she was awarded the Man Booker Prize, joining John Banville, Roddy Doyle and Iris Murdoch in the pantheon of Irish winners.

Most appealing characteristicScathing honesty and truthfulness, even at the cost of people disliking her.

Least appealing characteristicHer writing can be so dark that a Guardian interviewer wrote this week that before reading The Gathering, he felt he "would rather read Schopenhauer while rolling in broken glass".' (After reading it, he described it as "funny".)

Most likely to say"What does a girl have to do to get a glass of champagne around here?"

Least likely to say"I want a pink cover and a shopping bag on my next book"