In Anne Enright’s collection The Portable Virgin (published in 1991) the first story is about Cathy, who works in the handbag department of a large Dublin store. Cathy classifies the customers by the bags she induces them to buy, bags which ‘take them one step beyond who they thought they might be.’. Cathy marries late, but only falls violently in love when a ‘loose, rangy woman’ comes into the store and fingers the most beautiful of imports, ‘an Argentinian calf-skin shoulder bag in tobacco brown’. The customer asks if the store has it in black. Since they don’t, she leaves without buying. Cathy says nothing, but having failed to persuade, her whole life is out of joint. She draws out her entire savings and goes on a shopping rampage, buying all the size 5½s in the shoe department and going home festooned with bags. Hitherto she has always respected the immaculate emptiness of handbags, carrying her few possessions in her pocket. Now she takes the Argentinian bag home and violates it by actually putting things into it And ‘she started to sleep around.’ It’s true that from the outset Cathy’s department has been ‘a discreet mess’. Still it was just, even if only just, within her control.
In women’s fiction women often go slightly or quite mad. Several of these stories are concerned with the crucial moment when human nature cannot stand any more. The Portable Virgin itself is a little plastic statue, a souvenir from Lourdes whose crown unscrews – she is full of holy water. The betrayed wife, who has stolen it from her rival’s bag at the hairdresser’s, drinks it dry. Enright has a tender heart, with great pity for women, who seem set on their course of hard daily work and uncomfortable dreams. Even when they are fortunate, like Mrs Hanratty in ‘Luck Be a Lady’, who has unprecedented wins at the bingo, they betray themselves. There is only one man on the Bingo Coach, and ‘She wanted him. It was as simple as that. A woman of 55, a woman with 5 children and 1 husband, who had had sexual intercourse 1332 times in her life and was in possession of 14 coal-scuttles’ – and she wanted him.
Enright has been described as the Mary Tyler Moore Show scripted by Flann O’Brien, but although she is an eloquent writer and can be dazzlingly funny, she belongs to the present century and the company of, say, Kate Atkinson. For Enright the recognisable dimensions of time, speech and thought (though not place) are fluid and interchangeable, while metaphors often become the things they stand for. At the same time she can’t, and perhaps doesn’t want to get away from certain ancient Irish assumptions: men still expect to be taken care of, babies have to be cleaned up, corpses have to be washed, the rain still falls, there is still no friend like a sister. ‘What are cicadas?’ is a question someone asks his father, ‘whose voice smells of dying, the way his mother’s smells of worry and of bread’.
Having worked for stage and radio, Enright knows pretty well what can be done with dialogue. One of the most effective pieces in The Portable Virgin is ‘Liking’, which is no more (and no less) than scraps of conversation in a classic setting, a Dublin bar. These scraps make up a fantasia on the use in Irish-English rhetoric of the word ‘like’.
‘He had a woman sure in the house with him. She wasn’t from the same family now, but he was living with her all the same. You know he was in the bed with her one night. You know that. You know he was in the bed with her, and she wasn’t having any of that tomfoolery and you know he went into the kitchen and up with a knife and whipped off the whole shooting gallery ... You know that.’
‘The whole shooting works. And that’s what I saw.’
‘How do you like that?’
Her new novel is called What Are You Like?, a kind of response to the anxious Dublin question ‘What am I like?’ – meaning ‘How do I look?’ It’s more appropriate than the English ‘What do I look like?’ to a story which turns out to be of venerable antiquity – a tale of identical twins.
Berts is a Corporation employee, seemingly mild enough, but with the astounding selfishness of a respectable Dubliner. His first wife falls pregnant, but gives way to delusions. ‘She poured water on the floor and squeezed it back into the bucket.’ In hospital, the doctors are just in time to deliver her before she dies. Berts marries again. His sisters have been great to him, but he needs someone to be a mother to baby Maria. We are well into the book, Berts’s second marriage has lasted twenty years, Maria has grown into a robust young woman and has gone to New York. There she is working as a cleaner, ‘emptying the trashcans of the rich’ and living with her boyfriend Anton. While he is asleep she has a look through his pockets and finds a photograph of herself, aged about 12 – only she had never had a granddad shirt like that, she had wanted one very much, but she had never had one.
The photo is of her unknown twin. Berts had told the nuns at the Stella Maris Home that he could not manage to look after the both of them; the second daughter, Rose, would have to be offered for adoption. At this point Enright is faced, like all tellers of tales about twins, with traditional alternatives. Twins are redeemers, like the Dioscuri or the leaders of the Burmese God’s Army, but they can also be bringers of ill luck and bad weather. They can (when we get on to romance literature) never be told apart, this effect being prolonged in the theatre because they are never on stage together. Twins have a sympathetic correspondence which leaves the rest of us as slow-witted outsiders. Some of these traditions, or superstitions, Enright follows, some she doesn’t. ‘She was small for a monster, with the slightly hurt look that monsters have,’ the book begins, a hint that Maria, as a twin, is in the classical sense ominous and sacred. Rose, meanwhile, has been adopted by the charitably minded Dr Cotter, back from a stint in Africa, living in Leatherhead. He and his wife take in homeless young boys for short periods, and once one of these was Anton. A monstrous coincidence, fit for a story of twins. So, too, is the course of the girls’ two lives, nearly, but not quite, meeting in London, in New York, in Dublin. Both of them start out as students – Maria tries engineering, Rose music – and both give up, feeling that something is missing. In 1987 Maria is working in Dublin as an assistant at a dress shop, when Rose walks in. Rose has discovered (as under the new legislation she has every right to do) her real father’s name and address. Now she is looking for a plain dress – plain but good – to make an unannounced call on him.
In the shop, the two girls recognise each other, or rather themselves, but before they can say a word Enright makes a sudden return (it can’t be called a digression) to the voice of Anna, their mother, Berts’s first wife. In death, Anna is still deranged, or let us hope so, for she says she is in hell. ‘I blame the feet that walk over me.’
Berts does not hear. He has spent the day sitting by the window.
At three o’clock, the taxi pulled up and he saw his daughter getting out, twice ... He saw his daughter smile at his daughter, who was also smiling. He saw his daughter look his way, while his daughter looked his way, and he saw one of them nod hello.
And the twins immediately occupy the place that Berts had kept in his memory for Anna. ‘For years he had allowed a gap in his head where she could live undisturbed, and now it was not even she who was disturbed, but nothing at all.’
Extermination: a poor reward for Anna, who is not shown to have done anyone any harm. But Enright, of course, is not in the business of rewards and punishment, or even in suggesting who might dispense these things. When the twin sisters go together to see Dr Cotter, Rose’s adoptive father, he exclaims that God is good, and that now he can die happy. Rose tells him not to be silly, and Maria adds soothingly: ‘I’m sure you would have died happy anyway, Dr Cotter.’ And so this very powerful story winds down to a diminuendo. But it could hardly be called a peaceful one. You couldn’t expect that.