Sunday, June 22, 2008

Anne Enright - Recovering Catholic?

I've never felt very Irish. My sister thinks we likely had a Portugese sailor in the wood pile from whom I developed my love of all things Italian. However, reading Anne Enright's Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, all in one sitting, sure did bring back memories. It's more than Liam's body, laid out in the living room so that one can't get to the cocktails without stopping to look at the waxy face of the corpse nestled in its velvet bed, it's not the requisite family priest who may or may not be satisfied with his "calling," it's more the way the family members, 12 kids in this case, so easily slip back into the old resentments and insecurities of childhood.

Narrator Veronica is, ostensibly, living one of the more successful of the 12 Hegarty lives. Her husband appears to love her, with reservations, and she revels in raising her two daughters, but her brother Liam's suicide quickly dredges up barely suppressed memories and resigned anger at the ineffectual mother who suffered from what we used to refer to as "the vapors" and from whom much is kept "for her own good." Because mum wasn't able to cope - 12 kids for God's sake! - Liam and Veronica, closest in age, were often sent to grandma Ada's house for months at a time. Ada often had a visitor while her husband was at work. Memory plays tricks on Veronica but certainly something bad happened to Liam while he was alone with this visitor, or was it to Veronica herself?
In typical Irish fashion, drama abounds, secrets are kept, particularly if they have sexual overtones, lives are inadvertently damaged and the almighty church never seems to be there to bolster the strugglers as they battle for "normal" lives.
There's nothing funny about this book. Enright is no Frank McCourt, and I intend that as a compliment. She's a deep, gorgeous writer whose use of the language enthralls. I couldn't put this one down.

Another one that I read in almost one sitting ( you can tell that Don's away, can't you? ) was The Headmaster's Dilemma by an oldtime favorite of mine, Louis Auchincloss. I don't know how many people read him anymore but if you love Henry James or the sharp wit of Edith Wharton then this guy is a dead ringer. He's been writing for years, with a jaundiced eye, (isn't that a great expression?) about the hypocrisy of New York city society and the faux mores that are a "must" if one is to fit in.

In this book, he moves the action to a private boys' boarding school in New England, where the city scions send their offspring to get them out of the way of their own social whirl and to ensure entree at a renowned university whent he time is right. The halls of academe look so idyllic from the outside, yes, much like the public library, but oh, the politicking that goes on inside! Just read Richard Russo's Straight Man. At Auchincloss's school there's been a new headmaster for 5 years now, circa 1975, and the school is finally coming out of the dark ages. Michael Sayre and his wife Ione are a successful duo at Averhill School, updating the curriculum and attracting girls to the previously all male bastion.

Naturally, there is a small cadre of old school professors who are less than pleased with the direction in which Averhill is going and resentful of Michael's popularity and power with the Board of Directors. What an opportune moment for this group to discover that a homosexual encounter between an older boy and the only son of a vociferous New York matron has been discreetly swept under the rug by Dr. Sayre. Readers can visualize the gleeful handwringing as the cadre goes to work to force Sayre's dismissal. But, never fear, this is Louis Auchincloss and the denouement is always satisfying.

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