In 1980, in County Clare, ten-year-old Hanna is feeling the tension between her parents’ different backgrounds as her elder brother, Dan, announces he wants to be a priest. Eleven years later, Dan is most definitely not a priest, living with his girlfriend on the fringes of the New York art and gay scenes. Six years after that, in County Limerick, the eldest of the Madigan children, Constance, is a plump stay-at-home mother of three. Then it’s 2002 and we get to occupy the head of Emmet, an aid worker in Mali, learning (like Mrs Engels) the complexity of running a house with “staff” (p109):
You could be saving lives all day and be undone at the end of it by a plate of beans and bad lard. Literally saving lives. Because wars you can do, and famines you can do and floods are relatively easy, but no one survives when the cook scratches his arse and then decides not to bother washing his hands.
It was true that Hanna got pissed as soon as she left the baby, but it was also true that she never left the baby, or hardly ever. She mixed up vodka in a fruit juice bottle to bring on a girls’ night out and it was supposed to be a joke – the label said ‘Innocent’ – but she finished it on the way into town
But in the second half we are back with the widowed mother’s histrionics over the turkey, her small-mindedness and her guilt. Few can evoke the disappointments of family as pithily as Anne Enright yet, I’m afraid, by the time we got there, I didn’t care as much as I thought I ought. There are well-drawn characters in this novel, and fine writing too, with a subtle blend of pathos and humour, like an Irish Anne Tyler. Yet, despite the globetrotting, like with Anne Tyler’s latest novel, she seems to be revisiting old ground. That’s not necessarily a criticism, when both Annes cover the territory so well, but, with so much exciting new writing around this year, I’d hoped for something more. Thanks to Vintage for my review copy.
With review copies of six novels published tomorrow (7th May) please excuse the frantic pace of this week’s posting. You can expect the fourth of the six tomorrow with the latest from another prize-winning author, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins.