I have just recently finished this novel, which won the Man Booker prize 2007.
The narrator Victoria is one of 12 children and 7 miscarriages in an Irish family. Her brother Liam to whom she has been very close has just committed suicide at the age of 40. The tale alternates between various settings in time. It starts off in the 1920s and an imagined love-triangle. As it turns out later, the people involved are Victoria’s grandparents and their later landlord and friend Nugent. The second story line basically tries to retell what happend when Victoria was eight and her brother Liam was nine and their developments into adulthood. The third story line outlines Victoria’s life since Liam’s death, but even here events are not told chronologically, only what happened after the wake is in chronological order.
The narration navigates towards the revelation that Liam has been sexually abused as a child and Victoria witnessed it (or maybe was a victim herself? She cannot say for sure, 31 years later, nor were it happened and how often). This doesn't come as a surprise in the narration. In fact, the cover text gives it away before you even start reading.
The narrator is no great help, in fact, she repeatedly tells the reader that she has been drinking at least a bottle of wine every night since the wake, that she has not slept at night ever since the wake, that she is not sure what really happened and what she is just imagining, because she learnt to imagine a different/better world for herself at the sink in her grandmother’s house. So, the narrator doubts her own reliability.
I think, the novel transports these doubts , Victoria’s frustrations in her marriage and the consequences of the abuse for her very well and documents her process of becoming aware of what determines her own reactions (and obsession with and aversion of penises). After her brother’s death she gradually turns from her romantic imaginations (first half of the novel) towards what really happened and determined her life. As she says in the end, throughout those weeks she has been falling into her life.The novel may seem confusing and there have been stories about child abuse, about women having too many kids and not being able to cope and about how families mame you. What the novel achieves is to transport Victoria's confusion. The consequences of her being a witness to the abuse of her brother for her own sexual life, her relationships with men.
I haven't ultimately made up my mind about this novel. It leaves the reader dissatisfied. The narrator is very occupied with herself, she "lacks" distance and true reflection. The reader is witness to her confusion and "sorting out" of her memories. The reader experiences the same daze as the narrator. The novel ends when she decides to tell her family about the abuse - to not spare them any longer, only maybe "Mummy". The reader is not told whether Victoria will really tell her brothers and sisters and whether that will result in any positive development for her. The novel leaves it very much open whether there is a real solution to Victoria's problems.
It is an interesting novel, but not a "must-read".