Anne Enright

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman

Published Date: 16 March 2008 in Scotland on Sunday
Anne Enright
ENRIGHT’S first short story collection, The Portable Virgin, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1991, securing her reputation as a writer who was not afraid of breaking taboos and portraying foibles with unflinching honesty. Now the Man Booker-winning author has produced a second anthology of stories.

Alice Munro once remarked that stories are about “the moments within moments” that lift you to another level of perception. Enright breaks boundaries but achieves that lift: the subjects veer from shocking tragedy to comedy, written in acutely observed, razor-sharp prose that abounds with humanity and savage humour.

Enright examines every aspect of female physicality, whether during puberty, sex, pregnancy, motherhood or old age; these women confront their own bodies and the mysterious physical or emotional connections that link them to children, lovers, siblings, friends or neighbours. They make no secret of their failure to understand what men “want”.

Mainly, however, the women emerge triumphant: the opera-house cleaner (‘What You Want’) makes three wishes on behalf of her made-good son, but is careful to specify exactly what she’s wishing for, and to use one wish to ask for an extra three; Catherine (‘Honey’), whose mother recently died of cancer, resists the advances of her unpleasant work colleague.

Motherhood and children are two subjects on which Enright has plenty to say. Kitty (‘In The Bed Department’) is approaching menopause, but now finds she may be pregnant: “She felt that swooping blackness she had felt with each of the boys, so delicious, like diving into a pool and finding you could breathe.” In a brilliantly concise story (‘Shaft’), set in the time it takes to go up seven floors, a heavily pregnant woman finds herself in a lift with a total stranger and realises she is powerless to stop him touching her belly and her hopes.

This collection sets the seal on Enright’s skill as a storyteller. Her ability to switch voices and perspectives by weaving choice of language, key details, smells, sounds and images into these stories highlights her mastery of the art.

Jonathan Cape, £12.99

All material copyright © 2008 Lucinda Byatt

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