This book, which won Anne Enright the Booker Prize in 2007, is a dirge. It is a cry of loneliness and pain from a woman, Veronica, whose brother, Liam, has committed suicide. That death has caused Veronica’s mind to shudder away from her present, in which she admittedly has all she could want — a husband, a house, two beautiful daughters — and toward her past, in which she and her siblings, eight now living and ten dead, swirled chaotically around religion, drink, love, hate, money, abuse, coincidence, and time.
As Veronica manages the arrangements for Liam’s wake and funeral, she begins to dig into their shared past, going all the way back to her grandmother Ada’s marriage to Charlie Spillane, and to their old, mysterious friend Lambert Nugent. But Veronica is anything but a reliable narrator. Every memory is romanticized (or, quite the reverse, it is made perverse and urgent.). Each memory is tainted, tinted, altered to suit. “That Christmas morning was as clean and crisp as it always is — my memory will not allow it to rain,” she says. Or again, after the story of seeing her grandfather laid out on his deathbed, “And now of course I must add Kitty in from the start, my little sister, trailing up the stairs behind us, because she must have been there too.” In the end, she says, “There was something about imagining things, or even remembering them, that [Ada] found slightly distasteful — like gossip, only worse. These days, of course, I do little else.”
The most important effect of Veronica’s unreliability is that she is, and is not, sure that her brother Liam was sexually abused by Lambert Nugent the summer Liam was ten years old and she was living with him at Ada’s house. One moment she knows what she saw, and describes it vividly, the shadows, the emotions, the unfamiliarity of the sight. The next moment, she thinks:
And even though I know it is true that this happened, I do not know if I have the true picture in my mind’s eye… The image has too much yellow light in it, there are too many long shadows thrown… I think it may be a false memory, because there is a terrible tangle of things that I have to fight through to get to it, in my head. And also because it is unbearable.
Which is better and which is worse? That Liam was abused and she didn’t acknowledge it, and that it eventually led to his alcoholism and suicide? Or that it never happened, and his drinking and death were caused by nothing more than his own lack of hope? Which guilt is easier: your own, or that which belongs to the dead?
It does seem clear that something sexually strange has happened, if not to Liam, then to Veronica. Her thinking about sex is furious, twisted, and deeply disturbing. She either cannot or will not see a line between normal, healthy desire and perversity.
I say, “You’d fuck anything.”
“What?” he says.
I say, “I don’t know where it starts and where it ends, that’s all. You’d fuck the nineteen-year-old waitress, or the fifteen-year-old who looks nineteen.”
“I don’t know where the edges are, that’s all. I don’t know where you draw the line. Puberty, is that a line? It happens to girls at nine, now.”
“What are you talking about?” he says.
“Or not to your actual fucking. Of course. But just, you know, to your desire. To what you want. Is there a limit to what you want to fuck, out there?”
I have gone mad.
Some of this shows up, too, in the way Veronica returns to the phrase noli me tangere — do not touch me — that Christ says to Mary Magdalene in the Bible. Ada gave Nugent the nickname “Nolly May,” and there is so much in this story that should be taboo, cannot be touched — children, the past, the dead, redemptive grace — but that Veronica relentlessly explores. She does not seem to believe that sacred should mean untouchable, even though she herself shudders away from touch.
There’s no doubt that this is a dark book. Veronica says, “I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” But it’s also a complex and a rich one, worth reading for its language and flavor and small revelations.