The last quarter of the year has been good for women writers in Britain. First, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature and then Irish writer Anne Enright picked up the Man Booker Prize for 'The Gathering', hailed by the critics as a novel of exhilarating bleakness.
While a loud cheer went up for the octogenarian Lessing as she came into the literary fold after years as an anti-establishment outsider, opinion about the triumph of Enright, barely half Lessing's age at 45, has been mixed - as the Man Booker judges acknowledged.
"Obviously that choice has divided readers," said Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science and chairman of the judges. "We explained our reasons as clearly as we could. It is a very well constructed novel with highly believable characters. The language is strong, vivid and often memorable. It is a novel which we think will live on and, though we were judging the book and not the author, I am confident that we shall hear more of Anne Enright in the future."
'The Gathering' is the tale of a large dysfunctional family, seen through the grieving eyes of narrator Veronica Hegarty. Detractors have dismissed it as boring. "The Booker Prize is becoming increasingly irrelevant," ranted one blogger on online bookseller Amazon. "This book is about as interesting as watching paint dry."
But for fellow Irish novelist Colm Toibin, 'The Gathering' is the best novel so far from a writer of great sensitivity, while English writer Blake Morrison summed up her talent: "She sees what the rest of us miss".
Enright herself suggested her novel's bleakness could limit its popularity. "When people pick up a book, they may want something that will cheer them up; in that case, they shouldn't really pick up my book... my book is the equivalent of a Hollywood weepie," she said in a BBC radio interview. She managed to further alienate sections of her public with an attack on the McCanns, famous the world over for their campaign to find their missing daughter, Madeleine. (Madeleine McCann disappeared in May 2007 from the resort of Praia da Luz in Portugal when on holiday with her family. The disappearance and its aftermath are notable for the breadth and longevity of the media coverage.)
Enright's swipe at the couple was published in the 'London Review of Books' just before she became this year's Booker Prize-winner on October 16, and was whipped into a controversy by the tabloids the minute she was awarded the prize. "Disliking the McCanns is an international sport," Enright wrote. "We just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass."
For her fans, Enright's judgement of the McCanns is just another instance of her talent for understanding and fearlessly articulating emotional truths. Above all, her supporters emphasise her insight and use of language, rather than portraying her as a writer with a message or an overtly feminist stance. However, her themes of family and motherhood and her women protagonists give her work a very female viewpoint.
One of those who knew her as a student on Britain's most established creative writing course at the School of Literature and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia (UEA), said he had been struck by Enright's strength as an extraordinarily perceptive reader, as well as a writer. "She's a model of the productive relation between the critical and creative that can be achieved," said Vic Sage, one of the professors at the school. He singled out an article, published in September this year in the 'Guardian', in which Enright described poetically her passion for "In the Skin of a Lion", written by Michael Ondjaate, winner of the 1992 Booker Prize for 'The English Patient'.
It was, Sage said, "...typical of how she has always been a great reader, simply committed, sensitive, perspicacious", adding, "she's an all-rounder and her talent for me was very much on view in the glimpse I got of her while she was here." After the UEA, Enright worked as a television producer and director in Ireland before becoming a full-time writer. She has written three novels in addition to 'The Gathering', as well as one collection of short stories, with a second collection to follow in March 2008, published by Jonathan Cape. Enright has also written a non-fiction work, 'Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood'.
Her public persona gives the impression of a woman rooted in the down-to-earth practicalities of warm family life with her husband and two children.