by Anne Enright
240 pp, Jonathan Cape, £12.99
“The thing I like about you,” says one of Anne Enright’s angry, muddled men, “is that you tell it like it is. ‘You get old, you get fat, it all turns to shit, you die.'” The woman replies, in a shrugging tone quite typical of Enright’s women: “Yeah well.” And, yeah well, these stories do tell it like it is. They take unflinching, alarming pictures of the way things are in many women’s lives. You don’t go to Enright for gentle romance or reassurance, or for a nostalgic version of the Ireland her characters are always pulling away from and coming back to. As in The Gathering, her powerful Man Booker prizewinner, “every choice is fatal”. “The promise of damage” at once allures and appals.
In Taking Pictures, an anorexic little sister who “enjoyed her death … punctures” the lives of her whole family. A beautiful psychotic detaches an old friend from her comfortable dead marriage. A woman falls into a weekend of bad sex – “an aimless battering around the nub of him” – with a damaged, drinking liar. A pregnant unloved wife is full of fear and anxiety: “Who is going to pay for it? Or love it?” An unfaithful husband’s girlfriend is killed in a car crash, and the death crashes into the already compromised marriage. Women who at some level are friends try to kill each other, or sabotage each other’s lives. A couple with a new baby fight their way through an appalling, resentful family weekend. A wife attunes herself to her husband’s memories of torture and imprisonment. A woman who survived a brutal marriage is never visited by her son. Parents, in story after story, are ill, must be cared for, die, are buried, are lost for ever – their endings told with a breathtaking mixture of dryness and depth: “They were all outraged by the end – not that there was anyone to blame – it was just so outrageous: watching the tide of their father’s death wash over him and recede, wave after wave of it, until, by the end, they didn’t know if they wanted him to stay, or go.”
As there, Enright’s tone, far from being brutal or bleak, is unpredictable and elastic. Long ago, she was taught writing by Angela Carter, and Carter’s combination of gothic flamboyance and level-headed joking left its trace. The Gathering’s story of family madness, marriage and shame was energised by its mixture of sadness, strangeness and comedy. Her first astonishing collection of stories, The Portable Virgin, jumped into the shaky lives of Dublin women with a kind of desperate joking and surrealist brio. Her sexy, daring novel of the Irish adventuress from Mallow, the mistress of Paraguay’s most notorious dictator, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, is saturated with opulence and lavish textures.
These new stories describe the losses, confusions and sexual damage of women’s lives with laconic, savage verve. Really it shouldn’t come as a shock that the Chinese girl you share your American dorm with tries to stifle you with a pillow, or that the woman behind the newsagent’s counter has had her throat slit, or that the man who tried to look after your self-harming sister ended up murdering his wife. If anyone in this book were ever to get three wishes, the wishes would be a trap. “You blurt out something like ‘I want a body like Raquel Welch’, and of course she’s ancient, these days, so all you get is a heap of silicone and arthritis … The thing to do is to ask for the extra three wishes first, then you have enough to put it right.”
This wry, stoic joking does well with what it’s like to be in a woman’s body – what the narrator of The Gathering calls being “in my own meat: pawed, used, loved, and very lonely”. Enright can be horrible, and horribly funny, about what it’s like to be rubbed raw with bad sex, or huge with child, or just after birth – “her body, after the baby, being a much less reliable place”. She toughs it out about the sadness, guilt and shames of family life, like “the mother thing, which is to say, too much complaining and too much love”. And she’s at her most lethal on the sorts of thing men do, like sons who can only grunt (“Why not rear men who can speak?”), or a mean, manipulative old neighbour (“the kind of man who’d be sarcastic to a dog”), or …#8239;the guy who learns that an ex-friend has married a much older man: “He does the thing men do when they think …#8239;I might not be getting the ride; amused but surprisingly vicious, too. I’d fuck you.”
But if that were all, then Enright would just be a harsh stylish comedian of the war between the sexes, Dublin’s Dorothy Parker. What makes her such an interesting writer is the lyric strangeness that keeps pushing through the disabused realism. Often a dream or a haunting shadows the picture, as in “Caravan”, an excellent story about a wet, claustrophobic family holiday in France, where the ghost of a woman who died “some stiffening kind of death” is haunting the harassed mother. Perhaps it’s her own ghost, and perhaps they are taking her home with them. Images take on a life of their own – a broken elevator standing for a woman’s uncertain life, a daughter watching her mother’s death and thinking of bees in a swarm: “the cancer being smoked out of her mother’s body to settle in the space under arm, a drowsy mass”. Illusions keep muddling people up. However much they know about cruelty or banality or disappointment, Enright’s women still think of sex as “an act of the imagination”. However much they know that “there is no connection between human beings”, they still try for friendship and intimacy. As Veronica Hegarty says in The Gathering: “What amazes me … is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy – and we all do it … We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more.”
Like Eliza Lynch, a million miles away from County Cork, or the disappearing Hegarty brother, the people in these stories are never at home, or happy with the idea of home. The self-exiled, self-mocking Irish are always on the look-out for a false story, a sentimental cliché about Irishness. “So tell me about your grandfather,” says one Irish woman to her American lover. “Tell me about coffin ships and how you came from Connemara, really. Tell me about potatoes.” She does not warm to his enthusiasm for “your big family, all those brothers and sisters bubbling up, like the froth on milk”. When she finally takes him to the Dublin family home, they make love silently at night on the floor, “under the table where, looking up, Elaine saw a crayoned boat she had drawn, one endlessly idle afternoon, when she was nine or ten. A green boat with a blue sail. Her own secret sign.” That secret boat never quite takes these characters away, or to where they want to be. For that to happen, they would have to be dead. The girl who is being suffocated feels “my very self, fluttering in my chest and trying to get out of there, exultant, like it had been living in the wrong person and was finally going home”. Every one of these stories takes you to a place you might rather not be in, but which you are drawn in to explore, allured by their dark brilliance.
Review by Hermione Lee from ‘The Guardian’ / 1 March 2008