Readers of – or failing that, readers of reviews of – Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering may recall that this Irish family saga was almost indecently steeped in sex, and the male member in particular. The mixed reactions (including my own) to The Gathering made me want to read something else of Enright’s, so I plumped for her previous novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002). And it opens with this: “Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854.” Anne, really: is there something you’re trying to tell us?
The opening section doesn’t let up after that attention-seeking start, as Lopez and Eliza push and pull against one another, “twenty times in all.”
Paco and Liz, laughing on the bed. Mme Lynch silently looking at the silently looking Senor Lopez. The tart from County Cork turning towards the turquoise, as the little mestizo handles it into her. It was a moment that garnered the blame of nations, as if everything started here. Something did start here – there are such things as beginnings – but what? But what?
What indeed? By the end of their congress, Eliza is unknowingly changed (“a future had dug itself into her, and was now holding on. A tiny fish, a presence urgent and despotic”), and then the book changes too. We set sail with Eliza and Lopez for Paraguay, where he is the heir to wealth and she is now his … what again? Wife, lover, whore? We know that Enright’s Eliza was not above lying back and thinking of Ireland, but like so much else in this book, we are never quite sure what she is.
The rest of the novel then is made up of Eliza’s account of their journey to and arrival in Paraguay, alternating with accounts of her later life there told from the years ahead by a Doctor Stewart. “I do not know what we are talking about, now,” says Eliza halfway through the book, and by that stage I was only too happy to nod a frantic agreement. The intricate mess of language, which on the one hand is so rich and delightful in almost every paragraph, a living thing all contours and melodies, also goes to block understanding of the story.
All this makes The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch on the one hand a more seductive read than The Gathering – Technicolor where that was more monochrome – and yet harder to follow as a story. Nonetheless there are elements which any reader of The Gathering will find familiar, such as lines like, “Because that is what women are for. For leaving, and loving from a distance, very like the way we love the dead,” or, “Ask any wife – there is always a moment when necessity turns to love.” You make of those what you will.
At its best The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch reminded me of early Jeanette Winterson, particularly The Passion. Yet where Winterson, sometimes to a fault, sets out her themes on the surface of the page, Enright shrouds them so well in the thickets of the prose that finding them can be an exhausting process. I was relieved to look back at some newspaper reviews from the time of publication, and find that I was not alone: “there is a point,” said one, “at which breathtaking becomes, quite simply, suffocating.” And also: “the novel leaps mischievously on with barely a backward glance to check you’re still on board. In fact, if I’m honest, I wasn’t quite.” I’ll drink to that.
The Booker Prize jury, in awarding the prize to The Gathering, considered that it was a book which rewarded re-reading and improved on closer acquaintance. I can only, in my inadequate response to Enright’s earlier novel, presume the same is true of Eliza Lynch. The best things in life are rarely reached without effort. But how likely are we to make the return journey, when the first path was so difficult to navigate?