Anne Enright: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

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?


  1. I still think Darkmans should have won. I did the same thing you did , however and purchased another of Enright’s books. I plumped for What Are You Like as it sounded more like something I would enjoy. I haven’t read it yet because I had to read The Almost Moon first.

  2. I might check this out at some time, when I feel like getting a little lost! I’m also wanting to try another dose of Enright and I’ve got a copy of her short stories ‘The Portable Virgin’ – will review when I’ve read it.

  3. JS – thanks for going to a place where I have no inclination to follow. Especially not after reading this review. You say that “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”. There is a word for this – overwritten.

    My guess is that if Enright had not been longlisted for the Booker, neither of us would have read The Gathering. And my guess is that had she not won the Booker, few readers of The Gathering would ever have lifted another of her books off the shelf.

    A poor writer who cannot do penises with a dreary dull book.

  4. Probably you are right Nick – and it may show some lack of confidence in my own reading ability that I can’t denounce something like this outright, particularly when the writer is feted in literary circles. You see, you could say the same for Philip Roth, whom I didn’t ‘get’ until recently, or Saul Bellow, whom I still don’t, quite. But then again I suspect Enright’s greatest admirers would not seek to put her in the same league as those Big Boys. And I did buy a Saul Bellow novel yesterday because I liked the opening paragraph – and I never thought I’d say that.

    Jem and Candy, if you do get around to your other Enrights, I look forward to reading your thoughts about them in due course.

  5. Thanks for the link Nick #2…

    “The furor over Enright beating out Ian McEwan is the typical sexist bullshit that the world of letters so readily trades upon. In any country, “writer” is always already gendered male. The detractors who begrudge Anne Enright’s win can suck it already.”

    Insert appropriate smilie here.

    I see on Medbh’s blog that you say you’re keen to read The Gathering, Nick. Let me call you on that by offering a spare copy I have ended up with. If you would like it, email me with your postal address.

  6. Enright’s novel isn’t “indecently steeped in sex, and the male member in particular.” She offers a spare and unflinching history of sexual abuse and the toll it took on individuals and their families. I am surprised to find you exhibit such a reductive and hand-wringing response to the sensitive and complex issues she raises. Shall I get the smelling salts?

  7. Hi Medbh, thanks for dropping by. Well I did say “almost indecently steeped…”

    I suspect this should be going on The Gathering post rather than this one, but briefly: I wouldn’t have called The Gathering ‘spare’ – indeed, some of the best stuff in it was elaborately written and rich in detail (particularly the imagined past of Veronica’s grandmother). Indeed others, as you’ll have seen above, consider the book ‘overwritten’.

    I’m not sure if you mean the same thing by ‘hand-wringing’ that I do – wouldn’t that suggest that I was agonising over the subject rather than being ‘reductive’ and dismissive of it? – but as to the book raising sensitive and complex issues, I must say that to me the subject matter of a book is among its least important features. I’m more enthused by the language and style (and that, for me, is something Enright has in spades). I’m currently reading Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert which might help me articulate this better, but in the meantime I’ll quote Nabokov, who said:

    “There can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.”

  8. Hi, I just picked up this one and can already see what you mean by the breath-taking / suffocating language. Am still going to plow on though because I liked The Gathering. Am so glad to hear somebody else say that about Philip Roth. To be fair, I only tried Sabbath’s Ghost. But I didn’t like it. And that seems like such a blasphemous thing to say.

  9. Thanks for dropping in, Anindita. My first Philip Roth was also Sabbath and I hated it! It put me off his books for years! It wasn’t until last year when I read American Pastoral that I realised I could love his books … and now do!

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