Well, not all the protagonists of these 31 stories are married women (a few, teenaged or older, are unattached), and not all of them are desperate (some are just miserable or variously distraught). But they form a sort of sisterhood: sometimes unfaithful (their husbands are no better), almost always angry (at men, the world, themselves) and without exception sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued—not that any amount of sharpness will lessen their pain. This collection of vignettes—most coming in at or under eight pages—may be appearing now to cash in on the afterglow of the Man Booker Prize, which Enright won for The Gathering in October 2007. And at least a few of the items are recycled from earlier books; but no matter. Working mostly in the first person, Enright endows her unhappy sorority with as much quiet power, fierce intelligence and virulent honesty as ever—enough to make popular American images of female alienation look utterly infantile.
Hazel, in the title story, has things fairly easy: she’s just wrestling with exhaustion, irritability and a messy baby at a picnic lunch with her bothersome sister-in-law’s family. And Michelle in “Caravan” is simply coping with an awful camper holiday in France. More typical cases are Catherine in “Honey,” caught between grief for her dying mother and resentment toward the office Don Juan for not pursuing her; or the unnamed narrator of “Pale Hands I Loved, Beside the Shalimar,” who is married to a “hairy old baby” but adores a gentle psychotic who won’t take his meds; or of “Little Sister,” who watches her sibling die of anorexia; or of “What You Want,” who meditates bitterly on the downside of getting what you wish for, in her case a husband named Séamus Molloy (“a big man, he was the man in the whitest shirt, and I had to throw him out finally, before the baby came to any harm.”)
The new Ireland Enright shows us is promiscuous but unfulfilled, lapsed but not liberated, moneyed but not really enjoying it, godless but without a replacement. Parents now take longer to die, so that old agony has worsened. The Irish travel a lot more. The narrator of “Historical Letters” gets abandoned in El Paso; Alison in “Pillow” goes off to college in America and shaves her head like Sinéad O’Connor; Kate’s parents in “The Cruise” get as far as the Caribbean, but she knows they will never leave the country again. The Irish are more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But above all, Irish women are speaking up more; and Enright is there, with her perfect pitch, to capture their different accents.
Here, for instance, is a middle-aged woman, from “Until the Girl Died,” with a periodically wandering husband whose mistress has died in a car crash:
And he can’t tell me, because I really do not want to know. All this in hindsight, of course. At the time, I looked at him and I thought that our marriage was finished, or that he was finished. I was looking at extended sick leave and then what? My husband crying on the sofa was forty-nine years old. And if you think forty-nine is a tough station, try fifty-five.
Here is the 16-or-so-year-old narrator of “Natalie”:
Billy’s mother (who I really like, actually) got cancer last year and
she came home from her first chemo session high as a kite from the steroids and she told Billy—told them all in fact—that she didn’t love their father any more, had never loved him in the first place, and once her chemo was over the marriage was too. It was like,“I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m not going to waste my life any more!!!” At least, that’s how Billy described it. Then all her hair fell out, and she was sick as a parrot for the next six months, and Billy’s just looking at his da and his da is looking at him—and you know there’s nothing wrong with Billy’s da, he’s a genuinely lovely man—and he is bringing her four hundred cups of green tea a day while she lies on the sofa with a face on her that says, As soon as this is done, then I am out that door.
Can any English speakers anywhere talk better than Dubliners? Voices, voices. You want slightly thuggish working class? Enright can do that: try “Indifference.” Well-kept bourgeoise? No problem: see “The House of the Architect’s Love Story.” Wild eccentrics? There is a memorably daft saleslady in “(She Owns) Everything.” When she ventures into the grungier side of life, Enright can even sound like Raymond Carver. And she has a propensity for Carveresque dead-ends, though her characters are less sodden with booze, and Enright feels closer to Joyce than to Carver—or his master, Chekhov—in her colder authorial distance from the wretches she impersonates.
To be fair, not all of Enright’s characters are stressed or bitterly disillusioned. The aged heroine of “Della” brings sympathy and biscuits to her blind neighbor, Tom Delaney. The mocking young woman on vacation in “Seascape” is frankly delighted with her “lumpish” lover, though he won’t go in the water. Along with their vials of acid, these women also pack perfume. But the world is still more full of weeping than you can understand, as Yeats said; so they spray that acid liberally for both self-defense and self-definition. Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s wife and the model for Molly Bloom) would sympathize. Cathleen Ni Houlihan (traditional patriotic Ireland) might not.