After the last page is turned, after you’re full to overflowing with this book you’ve just read, Anne Enright writes an Acknowledgements page, and she starts it like this: Thanks for the information used and cheerfully misused in this book are due to: and she lists a whole swag of people. That is the branding mark of a writer: once she knows something, then and only then, can she choose to change it.
With the very first sentence she grounds the story in the domestic:
Later, after Hanna made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the kettle on the range;
but it’s the very first word ‘later’ that made me jump: what?, this uncertainty, tension; something happened before the cheese on toast and the filling of the hot water bottle. But what was it? What?
And then on the 2nd page, this
He took them for rides in fast cars, up over the bridge, bang, down on the other side.
It’s the word, ‘bang’ that hit me this time. With that one out-of-place word, not a word, a sound; no quotation or exclamation marks, nothing but surety about the picture it conjured: a too-fast car, over a bump, where you hit your head on the roof and the sound of the car bouncing back to earth with the woop and cheer of kids, out where they shouldn’t be. Such a big picture from such a small sentence.
I smile to myself and think: I’m in the hands of a master, and I breathe a little sigh of relief: a very good feeling at the start of a read..
But then Chapter 2 opens 11 years later in the East Village, New York, with a gay male narrator among gay men torn between their right to be promiscuous and a stalking, discriminating death.
What Billy wanted was big, shouty unafraid sex with someone who did not cry, or get complicated, or hang around after the orange juice and the croissant. Billy was across the threshold and cheerfully out and he wanted men who were basically like him; sweet guys, who lifted weights and fucked large, and slapped you on the shoulder when it was time to swap around.
Where did an Irish 50-something mother of 2, who looks like a little housewife from Central Casting, find authentic language like that? I was now severely impressed with this writer; and she can do that relaxed but spiky gay table-talk; sassy, arch, and funny.
I don’t want to give too much away because there is too much to enjoy about this novel; but it is neatly constructed. Divided in two, the first half assigns a chapter, each with a different narrator, at a different time for each of the four beautiful children of the difficult woman Rosaleen; and at the end of which is the reason that all of them are lured home to Ireland, County Clare, for Christmas in the family home that their prickly mother has decided to sell.
Bring on Part 2.
In a London Review Bookshop interview she describes the first half of the book, a ‘proper’ book, as getting to know the four siblings in a way that none of them could ever know about each other; in a sense this is dramatic irony on a large scale. We readers know more about each of them than any other family member knows about each other. They have gone off elsewhere (New York, Asia, Africa, Dublin) to care for, or sleep with, the lost, the undernourished and come back home full of themselves, their adult selves; but to the childhood home where their mother, Rosaleen, is waiting to be empathised with. That’s all she’s ever wanted. They go off to look after big-bellied African babies, or dribbling disease-ridden men but here she is not being looked after at home … alone. She has a point. The trouble it she doesn’t know how to accept it, or express it.
I foolishly avoided Anne Enright’s books, even though there they were on my bookshelf, and even though I’ve met the woman (twice!), I thought her books were all about families collected together at a funeral, a wedding, a last Christmas, and I thought, yes, I know what they’re like. I’ll get to them … one day. And this book is like that. Exactly like that; but at the same it is so unexpected, unpredictable and therefore rewarding, satisfying, and oh-so wise.
She got her hair done in a place so posh it didn’t look done at all,
and this is one of those rare books where you can believe what’s written on the cover: ‘brilliant’, ‘radical’ – don’t let that put you off, ‘beautiful’, ‘virtuosic’, and ‘hugely readable.’
I sincerely wish this book on everyone.
You can find the book in various formats here.