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Pickle Me This

November 25, 2008

Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright

The first thing I ever read by Anne Enright was her LRB essay “Disliking the McCanns”, which happened to come out the week she won the Booker for The Gathering. The media hoopla meant her essay received far more interest than it otherwise would have, evidently by many people who did not know how to read.

Or at least by people who did not know how to read beyond the surface, beyond what the words line up literally say. Readers lacking an ear for tone, I suppose, and for nuance. So that they would not see that Anne Enright’s essay was an examination of her feelings rather than a statement or an affirmation of them. Nevertheless, from the essay I determined that Anne Enright is brave, forthright, a complicated writer, and honest to a fault.

I read The Gathering afterwards, enjoying its richness and its language, though I found it all a bit much to take in at once– probably due for a reread. Then I read Enright’s memoir Making Babies once I’d found out that I was pregnant, and I realized that it does take a novelist to write effectively about motherhood– to contain the beauty, the repugnance, the love and the loathing, and the fierceness and the fatigue all into one singular perfect moment. And now having explored Anne Enright in every other literary form, it was certainly time that I paid her short stories a visit.

Yesterday’s Weather contains all the stories published in the UK last year as Taking Pictures, in addition to stories from collections nearer to the beginning of her career. The stories here in reverse chronological order, Enright says, “…partly for comic effect… to see myself getting younger– shedding pounds and wrinkles, gaining in innocence and affectation– as the pages turn.” Which is effect as interesting as it is comic, to see the stories less precise, indeed more affected, and yet still containing some essential grain that makes clear Anne Enright wrote these.

As could be expected (and hoped for), her newest stories are her best, and it is remarkable what she does with minutiae, the domestic in particular. In “Caravan”, a mother forced to wash her family’s clothes by hand lives every moment of this. “She watched the cloth relax, and lift, and start to float, then she bent over again to knead and swirl and wring the clothes out for a second time. It was actually quite pleasant, as work went: tending to your family when they weren’t there to annoy you; loving them up in the shape of their clothes.” Enright writes of motherhood as precisely tangledly as she did in Making Babies, the devolution of these domestic themes in her work suggesting the experience of motherhood stamped her. (In her introduction to the collection, she remarks her younger self made the mistake of writing about women who had children and didn’t change.)

Her moments are perfectly composed, affording the reader short bursts of absolute illumination. At the end of “Yesterday’s Weather”, Hazel returning home from a miserable family gathering finds that her tulips have been blown down. Wondering how, so she could prevent it next time: “She tried to think of a number she could ring, or a site online, but there was nowhere she could find out what she needed to know. It was all about tomorrow: warm fronts, cold snaps, showers expected. No one ever stopped to describe yesterday’s weather.”

Enright writes stunningly of teenage girl dynamics in “Natalie” against a backdrop that could break your heart. “Shaft” is so close and devastating– about a heavily pregnant woman in an elevator with a stranger, the story beginning, “As soon as I walked in, I knew he wanted to touch it.” “Little Sister” about the complexity of sibling loss and holes in families touches on some of the same subject matter as The Gathering. Her stories deal with love and marriage, the straightforwardness of adultery. Her characters spend a lot of time cleaning and cleaning up.

Structurally, these stories are challenging and perfectly formed, and the way Anne Enright writes about women and domesticity is both disturbing and surprising. Setting an example of new and interesting approaches to domestic fiction, challenging it to say remarkable things, and not just things that have long gone unsaid (which may not be remarkable at all), but also to make connections heretofore unmade, think thoughts unthought, and imagine stories wholly unconstructed before. In entirely new ways, to write without a template, which in domestic fiction is decidedly rare. Such innovation is as much of interest and importance to those who like the linoleum stuff, as to those who think they don’t, but who come bearing open minds.

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