Boyd Tonkin: The Gathering: a bleak and bitter work of art

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The Independent Online

After the cult of the misery memoir comes the triumph of the misery novel. Unlike its non-fiction counterparts, however, Anne Enright's The Gathering passes far beyond a chronicle of family pain and fear to take its place as a bleak and bitter work of art.

The Dublin writer's fourth novel will never rank as the best loved of Man Booker winners, whether with the punters who rooted for Ian McEwan or Lloyd Jones, or with those readers who expect an optimistic or uplifting ride. It will certainly not halt the protests of those critics who argue that recent victors have ceded too much commercial ground to other prizes – notably the Orange.

But this decision has undoubted integrity and independence, and it rewards an author who has always shown those qualities herself. If we want the Booker Prize to choose its own direction and make its own weather, as it always has done at its best, then Anne Enright deserves a much more cheerful celebration than the grim wake ofthe Hegarty clan evoked in her book.

The novel's headline events – of sexual abuse and emotional cruelty cascading down the generations of a large family – would not by themselves separate The Gathering from a hundred other novels of modern, troubled Irish life.

Two major qualities distinguish Enright's story of the gross intruder Lambert Nugent and his toxic interaction with the loneliness and dread that bedevils this family.

The first, channelled through Veronica's tightly structured narration, is a masterly grasp of emotional engineering. Decade after decade of secret actions and reactions stress her characters to the inevitable breaking point.

Second is the taut and springy language that captures the plight of the Hegartys, in images that stick unblushingly close to the body and its woes.

The Gathering sounds like a monologue by a modern Irish woman: sexually frank, unsentimental, impatient of all public and private myths. It stands in a long and illustrious line of fearless Irish naturalism. Exactly 100 years ago James Joyce was working on the stories in his collection Dubliners, a volume whose style of "scrupulous meanness" caused outrage and disgust.

Anne Enright belongs to this lineage of artistically rigorous and socially explosive Irish truth-tellers. And the truth, as the earlier naturalists believed, will set you free.