Having decided that this will be the year I finally read all the books on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, it seemed appropriate to begin with this novel. Mainly as I meant to read it last year when it was nominated for the Man Booker. All I knew about the book before picking it up was that it was about a family, and I was sure that it would be beautifully written. Enright was appointed the first Laureate for Irish Fiction last year and won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for The Gathering.
This is an interesting book in that there is an awful lot that goes unwritten and unsaid (I suppose like in many families). It reads almost like a short story collection as we hop from one member of the Madigan family to another, only bringing them all together at the end for one final Christmas in the family home. The book begins in 1980, finishing in 2005, each section taking a voyeuristic peek into the life of one of Rosaleen Madigan’s children before leaving and jumping forward half a decade or more to a sibling. We travel as well, from Hanna’s schooldays which open the novel in the west of Ireland, to Dan’s New York gay scene of the 1990s, Emmet dealing with the breakdown of a relationship in Mali and Constance stuck in a rut back in their home town.
Each chapter is exquisitely written, authentic and with an effortless feel. No overblown metaphors or unnecessarily long words, it nevertheless feels impressive. The voice changes as well, so that we get the stripped back Malian experience, where bread is weevil infested and the power supply unreliable. You feel Constance’s panic rising as she waits in the hospital for her mammogram, Rosaleen’s position as the family matriarch becoming irrelevant as she struggles to force her family together. Because so much time passes between chapters, there are things that we will never know. Why Dan, who in 1980 had decided to join the priesthood, ended up in New York eleven years later, girlfriend in tow but starting on the road to accepting his true sexuality, we never find out. It doesn’t really matter; the reader can decide for themselves. The New York chapter is heartbreaking and that is enough.
The second half of the book is taken up with the events of 2005. We revisit each Madigan in their current state, most of them in disarray, and see them react to Rosaleen’s call to come home. I found this half less engaging somehow. The chapters become shorter, the catch ups having more of a ‘get up to speed’ function than the first part of the novel. Of course, no family Christmas can go smoothly in a book, and so I found the inevitable predicament, and its outcome, a little predictable. What redeemed this section for me is that the book didn’t end quite there. By the final page there is still much unresolved, with both Hanna and Constance in their own separate crises. Again, the trust is placed in the hands of the reader: you decide how the Madigan family of 2016 would look and that is the beauty of this book.
The 2016 winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 8th June.