Our Lineage of Damage: Anne Enright's Family Fictions

By Mazek, Marissa | Hollins Critic, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Our Lineage of Damage: Anne Enright's Family Fictions


Mazek, Marissa, Hollins Critic


Anne Enright has been writing about women's lives for a generation. Women's lives, and the difficult families from which they stem. In her short fiction and novels, she explores the nuances of the relationships that shape our interactions with the world. While the focus of Enright's work has evolved from early stories centered on individuals to novels spanning generations of family trauma, her central concern has remained the same: what is it to be a person--especially a woman--in this world, carrying and creating pain? How do we face our histories, and ourselves, and keep moving forward?

Enright's fiction often focuses on women who inhabit, and feel constrained by, domestic settings. Much of her work is set in homes in and around Dublin and its suburbs. (Because of this, critics enjoy comparing Enright to Joyce every chance they get.) But the crucial elements of Enright's settings are not Dublin or even Ireland, but the emotional landscapes she creates. Enright's readers spend our time in the kitchens and living rooms of homes that are either missing something, or have too much of it.

Many of her characters are mothers. Or, if not mothers themselves, then the daughters of women who have somehow failed them. While her corpus of fiction does include male perspectives, they only make up about one-third of her major characters. Regardless of gender, many of Enright's characters have lost a close relative; in her work, this loss tends to insert even more tension into already-strained family dynamics. A consistent thread throughout Anne Enright's fiction is the damage families do to themselves, and how these damages reverberate through the years, and even generations. This pain is especially inherent in her novels What Are You Like?, The Gathering, and The Green Road.

In her earliest short stories, collected in 1991's The Portable Virgin, Anne Enright explores what it is to be an ordinary person in Ireland, confronting one's circumstances. There is very little glamour in Enright's short fiction or novels; her characters have office or retail jobs, or are stay-at-home mothers, or maybe reside among Ireland's wealthier classes. They could walk alongside us and we would not bat an eye. Though some of Enright's stories feature extraordinary circumstances, they all feel very much like real life. We connect to her characters because we could be them. (The overarching exception to her body of work is the novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, which lushly visits the life of a South American dictator's Irish mistress.) When confronting her husband's infidelities, the speaker of The Portable Virgin's title story asserts, "this is the usual betrayal story ... there are no doves, no prostitutes, no railway stations, no marks on the skin."

Many of the women in this collection are unraveling, as do many of Enright's later characters. Here, the reasons for breakdown are often more immediate than the circumstances and behaviors that make the inhabitants of her later works unfurl. In the story, "The Portable Virgin," Mary, the protagonist, undergoes a drastic makeover and steals in response to her husband's affair with a woman who shares her name. Mary lifts a woman's purse at the salon and imagines that she's stealing from Mary the other woman. One of her final acts, drinking a Virgin Mary-shaped container of holy water, is shocking, but makes perfect sense in this context: Mary consumes Mary, an inverted and feminized Eucharist. Sylvia, the speaker of "The House of the Architect's Love Story," is fixated on an architect named Paul, sleeping with him in the house he has designed for her and her husband and child. Even before Sylvia meets Paul, she is beginning to fray: "I became addicted to escalators, like a woman in a nervous breakdown." She builds her love into the house, hoping it all will crumble around her. Like many of Enright's characters, Sylvia seeks a collapse.

Grace, the protagonist of Enright's first novel, The Wig My Father Wore, is a lost soul. …

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