A surgical snapshot of
Anne Enright has a fine eye for detail, says Rosemary Goring
TAKINGPICTURES Anne Enright
SJonathan Cape £12.99 ome writers are blessed with a sort of X-ray vision that allows them to see beneath the surface of people’s lives to the dreams and desires that lie hidden below; then there are those who, rather than suffer the tedium of waiting for the X-ray results, prefer to plunge a knife into their characters to see what they’re made of.
Anne Enright, who won last year’s Man Booker prize for her shiveringly dark novel The Gathering, falls into the second camp. It’s not that she lacks insight or subtlety – she has both in abundance. But there is, all the same, a sense that she relishes the violent act of flaying the skin from her cast, of digging between their ribs and searching out the emotional cankers and the soft, bleeding hearts that make them who and what they are. The last thing you could ever accuse her of is sentimentality, and that’s a rare quality in a writer.
Taking Pictures is a portfolio of Enright’s talents. A slim but potent collection of stories, it is a mixed pleasure, demonstrating Enright’s epicurian taste for unease. It opens with a tale of painful confusion, Pale Hands I Loved, Beside the Shalamar. The heroine tells the story: “I had sex with this guy one Saturday night before Christmas and gave him my number and, something about him, I should have known he would be the type to call.” He is the man – dull, colourless, safe – she decides to marry, but since university days she has been attached to vulnerable, mentally unstable companion Fintan, a pianist and soulmate. Though she moves out of their shared flat and into a marital home, she has no intention of abandoning him. The result is a simple but raw account of a woman taking what she needs from two men who could not be more different, as if she requires both a duvet and a quilt to cover her emotional nakedness.
Women in search of a better way of life are the pivot of these tales, from a middleaged broody single mum (In the Bed Department) to a wife who flirts with the idea of an affair (Honey). The title story,
Taking Pictures, is a brittle, almost cinematic account of the jealous friendship between two women, one of whom has just announced she is about to get married. There’s a cool detachment about this tale, as with so many here, yet as the collection marches on Enright’s sometimes callous touch mellows a little, and by the time we reach Yesterday’s Weather, it feels as if we have found Enright’s inner map. A seemingly ordinary tale of domestic strife, as a couple struggle to adjust to parenthood and navigate family tensions, it is a feeling portrait painted in primary colours, a stormy arpeggio of emotions that concludes with the winning idea that “no-one ever stopped to describe yesterday’s weather.”
It is in What We Want, however, the slightest of the stories here, that the epitaph for the collection lies. In the spirited ruminations of a richly imaginative workingclass mother Enright puts her finger on the root of so many of the dissatisfactions her characters endure, as her elderly cleaner muses on what you would ask for if you were given three wishes.
Story by story Enright chisels out tough, glittering, occasionally tender slivers of love, sex and searching. Each of them is testament to lives lived in anticipation of wishes being fulfilled or – even harder – making something of them when they come true.