Jenny looked pretty intent as we gathered in her living room, and when we were all seated she asked in some disgust, 'Who chose this?' I think she thought it was me, since when Clare had offered it as one of her two alternative suggestions I'd persuaded everyone to choose it over the other possible book.
Clare looked a bit non plussed, but went ahead with her admiring introduction. She thought it was wonderfully written, she said. It was a very bleak book in many ways: the first-person narration of 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty who is grieving her brother Liam's suicide and coming to terms with it by imagining the events at the heart of a family secret which may or may not have led to it. But the writing transcended the bleakness of the subject matter, Clare said: lively, witty and full of the most stunning phrases. She was most struck by the scene which Veronica first imagines early on, that of the first meeting between her grandmother Ada as a young woman and Lamb Nugent, a man she could have married but didn't, marrying his best friend instead. However, Clare had one criticism: these scenes were so beautifully imagined and written that she didn't feel that they were realistically Veronica's (as we are meant to take them), but were too much those of the author. I said that this too been Adam Mars-Jones's only criticism, just about, in his review for the Independent, and (although I loved this book so much I was loathe to criticize it) I supposed I had to agree that the register wasn't exactly Veronica's, although it hadn't struck me as I was reading it.
At which point everyone else began laying into this book. Ann said that she had liked the beginning too, but she felt it went nowhere; as she went on reading it she was thinking, 'Come on!' 'Come on what?' asked Clare, but if Ann gave an explanation it was overridden by the others' criticisms so I don't remember it. John said he too was disappointed: he had thought the book was going to be about uncovering the mystery of how Liam died, but it turned out to be something far more amorphous. Trevor and Doug said that they liked the Ada stuff but not the rest, or maybe they said the opposite, or maybe one expressed one view and the other the other, but Jenny came in most memorably with the firm view that the book was terrible and she had no idea how it could have won the Booker. None of it was consistent or made sense, she said: nothing happened, it was all conjecture.
I said, but that's the point: it's a book about not knowing, and how we deal with that. Jenny countered that none of the characters were realized: you were expected to take for granted the close relationship between Veronica and her dead bother Liam: it was never shown except for perhaps one childhood scene when they stole into a bus garage; and Veronica's estrangement from her husband over the loss of Liam is never made understandable. And look at Veronica's other brother Mozzie: he's supposed to have been a psychopath, as Veronica calls him, and then he's supposed to have this miraculous change at the end and be some kind of nice family man: you're just expected to take that on trust, and it's just not believable.
I said, But isn't that all about Veronica's perception of him, which changes? Isn't this a book about that very thing, perception, and how we make up stories about other people and give them characters in order to cope?
Jenny looked even more disgusted and said that I was putting a spin on the book it didn't deserve: these things just weren't there.
I have to say I had had one niggle about the book and now someone honed in on it: the connections that we are indeed meant to take on trust between the circumstances which led to the sexual abuse of Liam as a child and Liam's adult emotional problems and suicide. Would Liam really have been that affected by it? people asked. Clare said, Well, it depends what the abuse means to the child. Abuse is most damaging when the child is emotionally involved with the abuser. We all agreed that this must be so. But Liam could not have been emotionally involved with his abuser, and people cited examples of others they knew, including spouses, who had similarly experienced abuse by a family friend but without growing up to be emotionally disturbed by it. But then Clare pointed out a moment in the book which even I, its great champion, had missed (and which I won't give away here), and everything fell into place.
This moment is fleeting, though vivid. Once you catch it it is devastating, and in retrospect justifies the whole structure of the book and Veronica's speculations. At this point in the discussion even I began to wonder if the glancing, allusive prose which I love in Anne Enright's work does sometimes militate against her.
Doug now asked us what we thought about the sex, which he had found so graphic it was somehow disturbing. People agreed and wondered about it without coming to any conclusions, and the discussion turned, with some relief it seemed, to a general consideration of sex. In fact, said Doug, getting back to the book, he had found the whole book disturbing. He had certainly admired the prose, and he was glad he had read the book but he had found it extremely painful to read.
Clare and I were stunned, insisting that it was witty, even funny, only to be met with sceptical stares. Jenny reiterated that she thought it was awful.
Some days later Hans called round at our house to find out about the next meeting, and we discovered why Jenny had informed us so meaningfully yet cryptically that he wasn't coming to the last one. He hated the book, he told me. He had travelled back from Glasgow that day and he couldn't face sitting talking about a book with which he had utterly failed to engage, and which he had found frankly pretentious.
His wife Jan had liked it, though...
Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.