Anne Enright: What Are You Like?
Albert (Berts) Delahunty is married to Anna (though we only learn her name later). She behaves somewhat oddly, particularly when she gets pregnant. As we will learn she has a brain tumour and sadly dies. Her baby survives. The baby is called Maria. Initially Berts will bring her up with the help of various aunts but he soon meets and marries Evelyn. Evelyn tries very hard to get through to her step-daughter but does not manage either when she is a child or when she is an adult. Though Evelyn and Berts have their own children, who play a very limited role in is novel, Evelyn still makes the effort. But Maria is wilful. She goes off to study engineering but drops out of her studies to go to New York, where she works as a cleaner for rich apartment owners, living there illegally when her visa expires. While the she meets various men but, in particular, she meets Anton, a British/Czech young man and something of a drifter. One night after sex, while he is asleep, she rummages through his bag. She finds various items, such as a ticket for a Clash concert, but she also finds a photo. The photo depicts what seems to be a family. There are two parents, a twelve-year old who seems to be Anton and a twelve-year old who is clearly her. Only it isn’t her, as she does not recognise the parents and does not recognise the clothes that the girl is wearing. When questioned, Anton shrugs it off as someone he once knew.
We also meet Rose. She has been adopted by a doctor and his wife, who take in foster children, usually boys and one at a time. Rose does not really like them, till one arrives, called Anton. But, like the others, he will move on. We mainly follow the two as adults – Maria in New York and then in a clothing shop in Dublin. Indeed, the only way Evelyn can meet her is to try on clothes (and occasionally buy them) in the shop. Rose meanwhile goes to university where she looks for her lost mother and has a lot of sex. She also becomes a kleptomaniac, stealing things and then throwing them away. But she is determined to find her biological parents and works on tracking them down.
While Enright is a first-class writer and writes very well, this novel really does not work for me. You get the feeling that it is unfocussed. Both Maria and Rose seem to drift, neither really set on finding out their antecedents with any great enthusiasm, neither having any aim in life, professional, romantic, or anything else. If this lack of focus is caused by their respective births and early life, this is not made clear or even hinted at by Enright. There is also a feeling of a lack of structure. While the story goes backward and forwards in time, and alternates between Maria and Rose (and sometimes Berts), there seems little rhyme or reason to the telling till, of course, the denouement. The story of Anna for example, is stuck on at the end, just before the denouement, almost as an afterthought. Perhaps this work should be seen as a precursor to her better, later works, interesting but certainly not of the standard of those later works.
First published 2000 by Jonathan Cape