Top critical review
Seven (and More) Types of Misery
on 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.