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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 February 2015
This is the second Anne Enright book I've read, and I've come to two conclusions: I don't think I 'get' her writing (or at least it doesn't appeal to me much), and Enright is rather mono thematically obsessed with misery, be it of the 'I can't get everything I want even though I'm rich and successful' type of the characters in 'The Forgotten Waltz' or the more deep-rooted, less tangible misery of the characters in this book.

Admittedly, Rose and Maria, Enright's two main female characters, have a lot to be miserable about. Identical twins, they are separated the day after birth. Their mother, Anna, has died of a brain tumour while in labour (her husband, the oddly named 'Berts', has made the decision that if the doctors have to choose between saving her or her baby they should choose the baby, as Anna is dying anyway). Berts didn't realise his wife was expecting twins, and panics, believing he can't support both girls. He keeps one, Maria, and the other, who the nuns in the hospital name Marie, is given up for adoption. Neither girl is told about the other at any point. Maria grows up in suburban Dublin with Berts and his new wife, Evelyn. From childhood she is possessed with a strange sense of angst. (Even her special trip to the zoo after her First Communion afterwards goes wrong, when she gets lost and gets frightened by a bald lioness). She quarrels with her bourgeois stepmother and reticent father, starts an engineering degree, moves to New York, gets into drugs and casual sex, drops out of her degree and has a nervous breakdown (shortly after she finds a photo of one of her boyfriends, Anton, as a child standing with a girl who looks just like her), returns to Ireland and is briefly hospitalised. Her sister, renamed Rose by her adopted parents, grows up in Leatherhead, with a kindly doctor father and a mother with Samaritan compulsions who loves to adopt cats and foster difficult children. Rose is a problem child from an early age - she bullies her mother's cats (cat lovers, beware, there's a nasty scene involving a kitten), taunts the foster children (including Anton), and later on takes to shoplifting in a big way. She starts a music degree, drops out because she doesn't believe she's good enough and she hates all her co-students, drifts into work as a probation officer and has a lot of joyless sex. Meanwhile Evelyn feels fed up at having to cope with Berts's past, and Berts develops fantasies about one of his assistants at his office.

And that's about it, bar a long (rather well written) monologue from the dead mother, Anna, towards the end of the book. Eventually Rose and Maria do realise they haven't been told the truth about their births, and start searching for each other (well, Rose does most of this) but the actual search takes up little of the story (told in a very modernist way, with lots of flipping backwards and forwards through time). Rather, what Enright seems concerned with is the different sorts of misery Maria and Rose experience. The trouble is that she doesn't make it clear ever whether the misery is directly the result of being separated, or the loss of their mother, or whether they're just naturally unhappy people - and both girls are so dislikable that it's hard to feel any sympathy for them. Maria is irritatingly passive, making no effort to help herself or change her life, seemingly going out of her way to make herself more miserable, while Rose is hard and selfish to the point of being near-pyschotic. Berts is incredibly boring, as is Evelyn, and none of the other characters (apart from perhaps Rose's kindly adoptive parents and Anna, towards the end) are well drawn. The book seems for the most part to be an exploration of all the different ways in which one can be miserable and lethargic, punctuated with joyless sex and a morbid fascination for bodily functions. Anna's monologue started quite interestingly, but didn't seem connected with the rest of the story, and faded out into the same misery as all the rest. And particularly after her final lines: 'I am not dead, I am in Hell', the happy ending feels tacked on, and out of place.

Granted, Enright is certainly skilled at the art of writing itself, and some passages (the descriptions of the clothes in the shop where Maria works, the experience of walking through New York at dawn, Anna's monologue until its final paragraphs) are beautiful and stylish. But I wasn't as keen on her style as I thought I would be. She's been described as a 'spry surrealist' and as 'witty' but I found little wit in these pages (the description of how Anna's brain tumour made her do everything the wrong way round simply felt unlikely, for example), and I certainly didn't find the writing spry. Rather, a lot of the deliberately 'surreal' way of examining life seemed forced and manufactured (the description of a baby's bladder like an onion to take one example), and (probably appropriately bearing in mind the misery of the characters) the world Enright pictured seemed rather drab. Hers is not the Ireland of the dramatic myths, or the superstitious rural Ireland of extreme Catholicism (portrayed so well in Berlie Doherty's 'Requiem') nor yet the humorous, ironic Ireland of writers such as Synge, or the beautiful savage country depicted by Deirdre Madden. Rather, it is a drab, urban Ireland, in which the older generation are trapped in a miserable materialism (with velour three-piece suites and bland food) and the younger generation drift miserably and often druggily about the streets, obsessed with obtaining things only to find they do not make them happy.

I'm sure Enright's writing appeals to many - and I do appreciate her skill - but judging from the two books I've read she doesn't hugely appeal to me. I will try 'The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch' next (as that looks so different in tone) but am not sure how much more Enright I will read.
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on 31 January 2001
This is the kind of book that can get you a bit knotted as a reader, but when I put it down I realised that I think I had read something that was extraordinary. It is full of echoes that bounce around from one twin to another. The language is really beautiful, I thought it was actually closer in some ways to poetry because although the story is quite simple, it is also very hard to pin down. As an Irish reader I felt it was really out there and it touched me the way the more cliched stuff doesn't. Yes you have to work at it, but at the end you have something that is really rich. I actually immediately wanted to read it again.
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This is a strange and fractured narrative of the strange and fractured lives of identical twins separated at birth. When their mother dies of a brain tumor at the time of the girls' birth, their father, Berts, decides he can take care of only one of them. Naming her Maria, he quickly donates the other one, Marie (renamed Rose), for adoption. Maria stays with Berts in Dublin, while Rose moves around the world as the adopted daughter of a British doctor and his wife.
Both girls have big problems. Maria, from her earliest years, is always asking, "What are you like?" and looking into mirrors. Sometimes violent in arguments, she sleeps around, gets stoned, attempts suicide, and suffers a nervous breakdown. She believes she "does not have a talent for life." Rose is a sadist who taunts the foster children her parents take in, goading one boy into throwing a kitten through a window and later trying to drown him. She believes there is "a hole in her head, a hole in her life." (Perhaps it is that hole she is trying to fill when she goes on her shoplifting expeditions.) Neither girl seems to have profited in any way from "nurture"--only nature counts here, and finding your twin, even when you don't know you are a twin, is so compelling an urge that it overwhelms any attempt to live a normal life.
With her very staccato style of short sentences, most having the subject at the beginning, Enright machine-guns her story at the reader. Her in-the-face style is emphatic and unrelenting as her narrative jumps from 1965 to 1985 to 1971, etc., from Dublin to New York to London, and from Maria to Rose and, eventually, to Anna, their mother. The story is sometimes difficult to follow, as the connections which explain some of the episodes do not occur until later in the book. Tellingly, Enright has to rely on several extreme coincidences to bring the strands of her story together and achieve some sort of resolution. The plot, such as it is, strains credulity, and if you don't agree with her thesis regarding the inborn compulsion of twins to find each other, even when they don't know they are twins, you will find this book difficult to accept. Mary Whipple
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on 19 November 2015
An attempt at post-modern fragmentation that really didn't work. The structure was so broken and unchronological that it was almost impossible to follow the plot. Plus too many co-incidences and an ending that wasn't really and ending.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 August 2013
It must be a great trial to authors that they spend many years laboriously learning their craft and finding their voice, gain recognition and have readers waiting anxiously for their next book; maybe they even win prizes. The reputation of their later works attracts readers to seek out their earlier works to see whether their talents were there from the start.

This novel, published in 2000, was Enright's third, after "The Portable Virgin" (1991) and "The Wig My Father Wore" (1995), and I came to it after reading the author's more recent novels, including her 2007 Booker Prizewinner, "The Gathering".

In 1965, a daughter, Maria, is born to Berts and his initially unnamed wife, who later appears to us from beyond the grave as Anna, before the latter dies from a brain tumour. Maria appears in the novel's first lines, "She was small for a monster, with the slightly hurt look that monsters have and babies share, the same need to understand", and as far as this reader is concerned she lives up to this description. Subsequently Berts marries Evelyn, primarily to have a mother for the child, but Evelyn finds it difficult to relate to her step-daughter and, whilst studying for an engineering degree, she runs away to New York where she finds work as an apartment house cleaner.

In a coincidence that is hard to justify, Maria forms a brief relationship with the Czech-born Anton in New York and comes across her photograph whilst riffling through his wallet, which indicates the kind of person she is. However, she cannot remember the photograph being taken nor its location, and recognises neither the adults she is with nor the clothes that she is wearing. Spooky! The solution to this conundrum is rather obvious and revealed one third of the way into the book; however, there is no build-up of narrative tension prior to this revelation.

One might suspect that, at this stage of her literary career, the author either had problems with male characters or lacked the confidence to present them, since Berts is the only important male character. Even then he is not fully rounded compared with the central women, who are of different generations and in whom one can already see traces of the author's later strong female characters.

Maria gives up her studies and suffers a breakdown in America but this is not terribly convincingly portrayed; this criticism also to the storyline set in Leatherhead and, indeed, to that surrounding Sister Misericordia back in Ireland. I found it difficult to understand the emotions that these women were showing. Enright's descriptions of Maria's feelings are intricate but I thought that, here in particular, Enright was rather showing off her literary prowess rather than placing this at the service of her narrative.

When eventually we hear from Anna, her story is somewhat anticlimactic and the novel rather limps to its ending. This might have been the author's intention but, if so, it leaves this reader dissatisfied. The final family gathering falls rather flat, partly because it could easily have occurred 50 or more pages earlier.

I found the book rather hard going, the story ranges in perspective, moves between New York, Ireland and Southern England, shifts between the 1960s and 1980s in a decidedly jumpy manner and stories are initiated and characters introduced only to subsequently disappear with very little trace.

The most moving part for me was the description of Maria's mother losing control of her mind, "The dinner was all wrong. It was the wrong day for fish and the ketchup was in the sugar bowl. He found himself shouting at her while she stroked the pattern of little triangles on the table top and ran her thumb along its metal rim. She tried to tell him what it was that frightened her - it was a word, she said, but she couldn't remember which one". Unfortunately, this comes on page 6 and, whilst there were occasional flashes thereafter, notably Maria's observations of her stepmother and other customers in the clothes shop where she works on her returning from America, these were insufficient to keep me caring.

I would certainly recommend Enright's books written from the middle of the first decade after the Millenium.
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on 27 January 2001
At first, I didn't like Anne Enright's novel at all. I found it very hard to identify with any of the characters. Anne Enright's style of writing is quite singular, and takes some time getting used to. It took about a hundred pages before I really started to enjoy this composition.
Enright's narrative jumps forwards and backwards through time, leaping from one perspective to another. The restless nature of this novel makes it very hard prey to track down. Anne Enright's prose is very subtle too. Incidents flash by, but the gun kicks very little. I admittedly found myself lost in the early part of the novel, especially when minor characters came to the forefront, and then disappeared. This novel either seems as though it has been culled too well or not enough. There's quite a lot of extraneous material that hints at a broader narrative, with good ideas dispatched all too soon, so that you almost never get a handle on them in the first place. This novel stands comparison with Trezza Azzopardi's Booker nominated 'The Hiding Place'. Azzopardi also has a quite developed and unique style, and her narrative also flits through time, and from person to person. Yet, even although Azzopardi doesn't give a time and date for each chapter as Enright does, you're never ever lost in 'The Hiding Place' as you are in 'What are you Like?'. Enright's novel is mostly the tale of two identical twin sisters divided at birth: Maria and Marie. One gets the impression that maybe Enright thought about keeping these two very similar names for her main protagonists: thankfully, Marie is also called Rose. When their mother dies during labour, Berts, their father, decides that he can only cope with one of the twins. It doesn't seem to matter particularly which one. Thus are the twins divided. Rose is adopted, and brought up in an English middle class home. Maria, brought up by Berts and new wife Evelyn, rebels and runs off to New York and goes a little mad. We seem to get more of her childhood than Rose's. Maria falls in love with the wrong man, and comes across a photograph of herself in his wallet when 12 - but the background and the "parents" are completely unfamiliar. Rose contemplates marriage with a Yuppie, and has an urge to find the mother who gave her up. Her quest brings treasures she never quite expected...
This novel is mostly viewed through the eyes of women, with Berts the only strong male character. It's almost as if Enright has to remind you of his presence towards the end, by his having a drunken kiss with a female co-worker at a Christmas party. It's a well-told incident, but I've a suspicion that it's only been included to add a bit of melodrama. Evelyn, Berts' wife, is considering leaving him, and then she finds a letter from a strange woman... There are so many perspectives from the women characters that you can often put the book down, and forget where you were when you start to read again. Towards the end, the twins' mother, Anna, speaks from the dead in the first person. This is done so matter of factly that no hint of the supernatural is ever allowed to shine through. Anna tells the story of her life, but her privileged voice doesn't ever really seem to say anything significant. Although the divide between the generations of these women is done very well indeed: Evelyn and Anna spent their youth in a very different world from Maria and Rose. Berts notices that women's behaviour has changed a lot over his lifetime, and has to get used to the idea that women are drinking a lot more nowadays and that the term 'typing pool' is no longer politically correct or even employable.
Enright's prose is so subtle that it does take a long time for you to feel anything for the characters. Indeed, there are glimpses of the Kennedy family background, of the boy Valentine gone mad which hints at the cause of Maria's mental distress and of her mother's eccentricity. The resolution is also a quite trite and maybe a little too concise. However, Enright's prose is still a joy to read. She has a lot of wit, and there are great one-liners. She's also incredibly good at capturing the consciousness of her protagonists. There's a delicious passage where Maria's mind's eye sees a lamp and a coat in a window across the road as a hanging body. Even though she knows that the delusion is not real, her imagination still gets her incredibly worked up. Overall, this is a bitsy book, which doesn't quite fulfil all its ambitions. However, if you stick with it as I did, then you'll find Anne Enright's novel hugely rewarding towards the end.
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on 29 January 2016
Very good, a page turner.
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on 26 March 2001
I found the book very self conscious and almost painful - I couldn't read beyond the first few chapters. Skipping ahead, the rest of the book seemed to dwwell self-indulgently on issues of 'identity' and 'sexuality' - whatever identity and sexuality are.
Not much dialogue to liven things up with - just page after page of self conscious prose. I was disappointed as the book cover looked really intersting. Perhaps it was just me - maybe I didn't get it.
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