Anne Enright knows a thing or two about surprise victories. Earlier this year, I sat with her on the panel that chose the Arts Council's biennial David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in British or Irish literature. From the first, she spoke up for the wonderful but under-rated Belfast-born poet Derek Mahon, who was the opposite of a shoo-in at that stage. Mahon grew on us, and finally took the prize. "I found that experience salutary when I was thinking about what might happen," she says, confined on the morning after her Man Booker triumph to a cruelly-lit interrogation chamber in the basement of the PR company's headquarters. "Unexpected things happen on the night in those rooms. It doesn't always go the way everybody thinks it might."
Before leaving Dublin for London, she had duly told her two young children, "If Mama doesn't win the award, don't cry. It's not about winning. My daughter still isn't over the shock of sports day, which is the only competitive thing that happens in her school." Now, all that sensible parental advocacy of "It's the taking part" lies in ruins. " Unfortunately, that moral has been completely overturned." All the same, as she admits, "There was probably a little writerly monster in me that thought I was definitely going to do it."
"People in the business know how contingent and arbitrary the whole thing is," she adds, a sharp and mischievous presence even after four hours' sleep, and forever seeking the word and the idea that really fits the case. "The wider public sees it as a... transmogrification, as if it was somehow fated. That's not actually the case. But it is lovely to be lucky. I did always want to be lucky, and there have been times when I haven't felt lucky with books."
In fact, that writerly monster had good reasons for its confidence. Enright's fourth novel, The Gathering (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), overcomes the already-famous (or infamous) harshness of its material – suicide, abuse, quarrels, secrets and terrors passed down the generations of a fissiparous Irish clan like a cache of slow-ticking bombs – with the arresting and even exuberant precision of its art. Through the finely-tuned and often grimly comic first-person voice of her narrator Veronica Hegarty, as she returns to Dublin after the death of her brother Liam, Enright makes even this saddest of sagas sing.
She feels that, once they get to grips with the actual novel rather than its reputation, readers will be happy to ignore the deterrent "bleak, bleak, bleak" tag and appreciate the company of the uncontrolled and (often) savagely amusing Hegartys. "It's been selling very briskly in Ireland, and I just feel that word of mouth had a lot to do with that. It kept doing well, so I thought that people must be reading it and not throwing it across the room. I kind of trust this book a little more to make its way in the world, prizes notwithstanding.
Needless to say, Enright's novel is no sort of disguised confessional. In fact, she received a text from her sister which read: "Book very good and not overly autobiographical". And she compares the author's and the actor's art of honest fabrication. "We admire the generosity of actresses who bring a lot of themselves to their work, but we know it's not them."
The real Anne Enright lives in the pleasant (and pricey) seaside suburb of Bray, south of Dublin, is married to the actor and director Martin Murphy, and has two children, aged four and seven. She worked for several years as a producer of TV programmes for RTE in Dublin, and has also climbed that academic Parnassus of contemporary fiction, the MA writing course at UEA in Norwich. Whether writing a novel in celebration of the legendary tart from Cork who became the Eva Peron of Paraguay (The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch) or puncturing maternal myths in her book about motherhood, Making Babies, she has for a decade left a trail of broken taboos and slain sacred cows in her wake.
It all sounds much like a template for the modern Irish dream. Yet The Gathering shows in wrenching detail how the old Ireland haunts the new, just as the awesome figure of the grandmother, Ada, intrudes continually into the hearts and minds of her numerous and scattered tribe. "The novel is full of residues and ghosts, and things that don't go away," she comments. "Or, as they go away, they ossify... They turn kitsch and they turn dead."
The Gathering also pays unusually loving and lively attention to language, as shifting speech patterns over the past half-century mark the changing mental map of Irish people. That "the historical sections are refracted through various kinds of linguistic lenses", Enright explains, is " a reflection of the fact that you cannot write about Ireland in the 1950s in the same tone of voice even as you write about Ireland in the 1970s, or Ireland now. It actually requires a whole different language and sensibility, of flavour, tone and smell."
As the long-buried secrets of these decades come to light, a squalid and banal episode of sexual abuse almost inevitably features among them. Did she worry about the over-familiarity of this motif today? "I'm aware how jaded it is in novels in general," she replies, "and I'm also aware how important it is not to use what is a terrible human experience just for the sake of a book." Yet she also notes that "There often is a dark secret in books... There is often a gathering sense of dread, there's a gap sometimes in the text from which all kinds of monsters can emerge... So I knew all of this. And I went there anyway."
She went there in part because, for an Irish woman writer even 45 years after Edna O'Brien's breakthrough novels, the right to such frankness still needs to be seized: "In some way, when I deal with sexual material, I feel that I'm reclaiming or repossessing some territory that's been taken away from women by male writers."
Moreover, her work investigates not just the how, but the why of storytelling: "I'm quite interested in the absolute roots of narrative, why we tell stories at all: where the monsters come from." However agonising, Veronica's urge to know and tell the truth at least tries to pin some solid meaning on the vagaries of her inchoate clan. "My impulse is towards the real," says Enright. "I do my best. And that is reflected in the process Veronica goes through."
As for the teeming tribe themselves, they "just came in under the radar. I was so busy working out what was true and not true in the historical sections, and so busy building the uncertainty into Veronica's thinking... that I just ignored the Hegartys. I know they are the heart of the book, and it's like my unconscious tricked me into being worried about other things." For her, "The Hegartys aren't so much dysfunctional as free-range. They just got on with it. They didn't really have their parents fucking them up in the classic sense. They were just ignored, essentially."
In the past, Enright herself has profited from the freedom of being (relatively) ignored. "To be able to have the space to sit down and write has always been my central policy," she says. Later she adds aphoristically that "I always felt that if Ireland got it, the game would be over".
From now on, Ireland and whole world will claim to get it. "Ireland domesticates its writers very quickly," she says, mentioning one of her great predecessors in the unflinching scrutiny of its family life. " [John] McGahern is already somehow about the field. We've turned him into a man out walking in his field. He's an immensely angry, subversive writer, but somehow we've turned him into a rural idyll." Until now, "I've had a good run of not being domesticated because I haven't had a label slapped on to me... like 'Booker Prize'."
I suspect that no label will stick for long on Anne Enright. After all, this suddenly respectable literary champion has only just published (in the London Review of Books) a startlingly explicit piece on the "mass paranoia" that drives what millions think, or fantasise, about Kate and Gerry McCann. ("I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction," she wrote.) Discussing the McCanns' long ordeal by media and rumour, she now says that "A normal couple exposed to scrutiny can't survive. None of our lives would survive." Only via the artful candour of fiction such as hers, perhaps, can we safely meet the monsters on the hearth.
Biography: Anne Enright
Born in Dublin in 1962, Anne Enright was educated in Dublin, Canada and at the University of East Anglia, on the creative-writing MA course. For six years, she was a television producer in Dublin, and now broadcasts on RTE; she also writes for the London Review of Books and the Irish Times. She is married to the actor and director Martin Murphy; their children are aged four and seven. Her fiction includes the short stories of The Portable Virgin (which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature), and four novels: The Wig My Father Wore, What Are You Like?, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and The Gathering (Cape), which this week won the Man Booker Prize. She has also published a non-fiction book on motherhood, Making Babies. She lives with her family in Bray, Co Wicklow.