Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Literary Prizes (Like Life Perhaps?) Are a Crap Shoot: Thoughts on Anne Enright's The Gathering

Anne Enright’s The Gathering was the book for discussion last night, and the talk was heated. This novel of the New Ireland is told by Veronica Hegarty, a most unreliable narrator, as her family gathers for the funeral of her brother Liam. The pair were extraordinarily close in a family in which nine others who lived to adulthood (one died, mysteriously, as a toddler and their mother had seven miscarriages.) But Liam has killed himself by walking into the sea off Brighton, and it is a time to consider ghosts, and things not quite remembered, or events that might just possibly have happened but one can’t be sure.

Celia Bussey who presented the book had a series of reviews, must laudatory, which became increasingly positive as Enright’s book was first on the Man Booker long list, then on its short list, and finally the winner for 2007. Our verdict was mixed, and the question arose several times: was it really the book that merited the £50,000 prize last year?

Who’s to say? My only feeling, having served on a couple of juries (although for competitions light years less prestigious than the Man Booker) is that there is no accounting for taste, and that the most important thing is that juries be changed every year. Having said that I was extremely pleased to see that Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (in the US Somebody Knows My Name) has recently won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, and therefore goes on the world competition. It and Mary Novik’s Conceit were the two best Canadian novels I read last year, and Larry’s is up there among my all time favourites. Yet while both he and Novik made the ScotiaBank Giller Prize long list, he hadn’t won anything until the Commonwealth regional prize.

Go figure.

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