- Hugh Chaloner
Anne Enright was born in Dublin in 1962, studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and went on to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
She is a former RTE television producer. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines including The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and she won the 2004 Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award for her short story, 'Honey'. Her short story collection, The Portable Virgin was published in 1991, and won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Two collections of stories, Taking Pictures and Yesterday's Weather were published in 2008.
Her novels are The Wig My Father Wore (1995), shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize; What Are You Like? about twins separated at birth who meet when they are 25, winner of the 2001 Encore Award and shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Novel Award; The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002); The Gathering (2007) about a large Irish family gathering for the funeral of a wayward brother which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction; and The Forgotten Waltz (2011). Her most recent novel is The Green Road (2015), which won the Irish Novel of the Year.
Anne Enright has also published a book of humorous essays, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004). She lives in Ireland.
Since winning the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Gathering (2007), Anne Enright’s formerly low-profile reputation has changed dramatically.
The novel had been considered a rank outsider alongside Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, yet the judges’ decision was unanimous. Enright is now regarded as part of a great tradition of Irish writers who explore Irish family life in acute and often harrowing detail. Yet, though her depictions of family relationships, love, sex, repression and Catholicism are delivered with savage honesty, this is almost always combined with a dry and subtle humour, and a rich and sometimes surreal prose style.
After her collection of short stories, The Portable Virgin (1991), Enright’s first novel was The Wig My Father Wore (1995). It combines a poignant and humorous story of Irish family life with supernatural elements, featuring an earth angel in the tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life. Grace is a young woman who lives in Dublin and works on a tacky television game show called ‘Love Quiz’. While struggling to find meaning in her successful but superficial life, she is also faced with her father’s descent into senility. She then encounters Stephen, a man who committed suicide in the 1930s and is now an angel trying to earn his wings by helping ‘lost souls’. The novel explores illusion in its many different forms, and in so doing calls into question our fixed sense of ‘reality’. Grace’s job involves the creation of a false sense of reality through the power of television, while her Catholic family life is made up of numerous illusions and secrets, epitomised by the wig of the title, which has never been mentioned by her father or the rest of the family:
'We grew up with a secret everyone knew. Even the cat knew and stalked it. For years my father’s wig felt like an answer. I could say, “I am the way I am because my father wears a wig'.
The role of Stephen the angel is to help Grace to overcome her feelings of despair and cynicism. Enright skilfully avoids sentimentality as she depicts her protagonist regaining some faith in love and family relationships.
Enright’s next novel, What Are You Like? (2000) has a very different premise - twin sisters separated at birth and raised apart. Nonetheless, it echoes its predecessor in its theme of young people in the modern world, desperately searching for meaning in life. After the death of their mother shortly after their birth, twins Maria and Rose are separated - one is adopted by an English family, while the other is raised by their father, who feels unable to cope with both children. Twenty years later, we encounter the girls as young adults, leading up to their discovery of each other. Although the story centres on the separation and eventual meeting of the twins, the themes can be applied more universally, for their sense of emptiness and search for self-identity are by no means unique to such a situation. As in The Wig My Father Wore, Enright’s prose is sharp, direct and witty, with a poetic and somewhat surreal quality which, for some readers, is an acquired taste. Nonetheless, persevering with Enright’s style is well worth the effort.
In 2002 Enright published a historical epic, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, a fictionalised version of a real historical figure which shows a marked change from her earlier works. Eliza Lynch was the beautiful Irish consort of the 19th-century Paraguayan president Francisco Solano López and, as such, was extremely powerful and controversial. Critics have commented that The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch does not shed much light on the true story of Lynch and López, but this, it seems, was not Enright’s intention. The author notes in her ‘Afterword’ that although the story is based on a real figure, it is in fact a novel and is not necessarily accurate in its interpretation of events. The book’s emphasis is on a rich sensuality, making elaborate use of metaphorical language. Eliza is depicted as a highly sexualised and hedonistic person, revelling in luxurious pleasures from love-making to the exotic materials of her new clothes. In the hands of a less talented writer, such an approach might have seemed gaudy and excessive, but Enright’s metaphorical skill is sophisticated and the novel has been compared to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
Enright’s most acclaimed novel, The Gathering (2007), is also an epic, but this time a family saga, set once again in contemporary Irish society. The actual ‘gathering’ of the title is the funeral of Liam Hegarty, who has committed suicide. His mother and nine siblings come together for the wake in Dublin, and the novel’s narrator is Liam’s sister, Veronica, who was closest to him. Tormented by grief for her favourite brother, Veronica traces back through her childhood and family history in order to try to understand what caused Liam’s despair. She tells the story of three generations -- starting with the life of her grandmother, Ada Merriman, then her parents’ stories, along with her own and her brother Liam’s. In so doing, she unveils a web of uncomfortable hidden truths, particularly an incident that happened when she and Liam stayed at their grandmother’s house during their childhood. The novel explores the way in which repression and secrets increase the inner turmoil of family members who cannot articulate or understand their pain. Veronica is haunted by her memories, but also aware of the unreliability of her own mind:
'I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me - this thing that may not have taken place.'
The Gathering is an intense and powerful book which takes an acutely honest look at painful family relationships, hidden secrets and festering emotional wounds:
'The kitchen still smells the same - it hits me in the base of the skull, very dim and disgusting, under the fresh, primrose yellow paint. Cupboards full of old sheets; […] the chair my father used to sit in, the arms shiny and cold with the human waste of many years. It makes me gag a little, and then I cannot smell it any more. It just is. It is the smell of us.'
Howard Davies, chair of the Booker judges, described Enright’s novel as ‘an unflinching look at a grieving family. It’s the bleakness of one woman’s vision, a bleakness rooted in her family, her marriage and the death of her brother […] [It is] powerful, uncomfortable and even at times angry’. Enright herself commented that readers who are seeking a cheerful novel ‘shouldn’t really pick up my book […] my book is the equivalent of a Hollywood weepie’.
Enright’s use of language makes this otherwise gruelling story enthralling and entrancing. In all her novels, short stories, and even her non-fiction, Enright’s words are skilfully crafted, evocative and sensual, often combining darkness and humour. She focuses intensely on bodily sensations and pays minute attention to detail, both in terms of physical descriptions and raw emotional honesty. Veronica’s grief in The Gathering is a particularly acute example of this:
'I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling - somewhere between diarrhoea and sex - this grief that is almost genital. ' The same comments can be applied to Enright’s non-fiction book, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004), an account of her first few years of motherhood which combines down-to-earth, honest revelations with a visceral quality. As such, she depicts new parenthood as a profound, almost mystical, experience while simultaneously being brutally honest - and hilariously funny - about the exhaustion, negative emotions and everyday practicalities. She muses on her feelings as she greets her new child for the first time:
'And here it comes - my child; my child’s particular profile. A look of intense concentration, the nose tilted up, mouth and eyes tentatively shut. A blind man’s face, vivid with sensation.'
Yet Enright also brings her dry sense of humour to the myriad of new experiences she encounters, including the constant pressure of society’s expectations of mothers:
'I remember reading once that women have a thing in their brains, A Deep Thing, like a radar, that checks every forty-five seconds for the sound of a baby’s cry […] So what’s wrong with me? […] I love my baby, but I am not a proper woman, neurologically speaking, or I have an override system, or the scientists who discovered the Deep Female Caring Thing in the Middle of Your Brain in the Middle of the Night were talking bollocks.'
In 2008, Enright published another collection of short stories, Taking Pictures. Each story, as the title suggests, is a ‘snapshot’ of life, predominantly focused on women’s experiences (as is the majority of her writing). The stories are written in Enright’s usual style - brutally honest, cynical and sometimes disturbing, but nonetheless delivered with her trademark deadpan humour, along with moments where real love and healing shine through and lift the darkness.
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2008