A sur­gi­cal snap­shot of

Anne En­right has a fine eye for de­tail, says Rose­mary Gor­ing

The Herald - Arts - - Books -


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.

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