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Anne Enright Review - The Portable Virgin

Irish author Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize recently, for her novel “The Gathering.” This was not her first publication, however, as she had previously won the 1991 Rooney Prize for a collection of Short Stories entitled “The Portable Virgin.” (Vintage Random House.) Some have acclaimed their brightness and genius. What do you think? Read my article and see if you agree with my recommendations and conclusions. If not, there’s always the forum!

The Portable Virgin – Anne Enright – A Gathering of the Hopeless?

The portable virgin wasn’t. Portable that is. She was portable enough allright, being made of a lightweight material and only a few centimetres long, but a virgin she wasn’t. She turned out to be just a piece of transparent plastic, a tiny hollow Holy Water bottle fashioned in the shape of a statue. This particular statue represents Mary, the chaste mother of God revered by Catholics.

Mind you, there is precious little chastity in Anne Enright’s collection of Short Stories. In the story that lends its name to the collection, the aforementioned virgin is found at the bottom of a handbag stolen by one of the three people in a marriage – the wronged wife. She drinks the Holy Water (which originates from the Lourdes Catholic pilgrimage shrine) and puts the bottle in the sea. The bottle and the bag seem to belong to her husband’s mistress.

Depressingly familiar? Maybe. Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel was reputed to be ‘a depressing read.’ I determined to scour her previous works in search of Hope, hunting through their bleak trenches of despair and barbed wire character assassinations for something warm and cosy, something uplifting and inspirational, something true.

Oh No! I thought at first, pleeese … not more sad matronly monologues about middle-class moms mouldering into self-perpetuated martyrdom complexes; the ones that start with breast-milk stained baggy sweaters and stitches, and end with missing hubbies, menopause misery and a soiled, empty and thankless nest. We women readers have been there and done that. We bit that bullet with comediennes Victoria Wood and the less charitable Jo Brand. We reached for the tissues with Maeve Binchy in Dublin 4 and Silver Wedding.

These stories, however, have a darker, twisted edginess. They have an icy detachment towards the victims, er I mean, characters, that in places borders on the pathological lack of empathy that would rival the ruthless poet Ted Hughes. Even Hughes I imagine, in his day (a time of BBC English and establishment veneer), would have baulked at the strong, pugnacious language and stark realism in Enright’s story of infidelity.

When encountering swear words in any kind of Literature, I can never quell the still small voice of my ancient English Literature teacher who used to tell us to mistrust any writer who used swear words at all costs. It was said to be the sign of a writer who was inarticulate, needing to shock in order to draw attention to writing which would not merit it any other way.

Yet the reader’s sharp intake of breath at the bald description of the erring husband’s speedy washing could result more from the recognition of a cold spark of truth, bearing in mind he is freshly returned, one assumes, from a visit with ‘the other woman.’ Other swearing in the book however, verges on the unnecessary and gratuitous and is an irritating distraction.

Amid the ripe language, the glory and the grime of physical relationships, and the predictable painting of middle-age spread in the collection, I did however, burst out laughing at one point. In revenge, our Momsie Matron heroine arranges to have her hair dyed blonde. Sitting in a posh salon in Dublin’s elite Grafton Street, the depiction of the ignominy and incongruity of the other Austenite ‘frights’ all lined up to have their thin greying hairs pulled through rubber skull-caps (described with genius as ‘tonsures’) would outdo even the outspoken comedienne, Jo Brand. Yet there may be compassion here. There is a feeling of comraderie. All the women, both beautiful and ugly, might be enduring the suffering and humiliation for the same reason – Love. It is in this that I found the only ray of hope.

For after the wronged wife discards the Portable Virgin Holy Water bottle into the waves, she seems to decide that she must try to live with the situation, having no choice and nowhere else she wants to be, because she loves her man. Some readers may discern a more sinister ending, a decision to follow the statue not back to her husband at all, but into the sea. The latter ending presents a difficulty however, as the writing has a slightly retrospective quality here. She can’t be a ghost and a living person telling a story at the same time – can she? Are we, the readers, going to watch her walking under the waves without trying to stop her?

To end on a note of having no place else to go except death would have been hope-less indeed. But Love? That maybe soars above despair and suggests that when the couple are old and grey, our heroine might prevail! Take your pick of endings - I’m going with Hope.


Do read this collection (when it comes out again) if:
-you enjoy puzzles and intellectual challenge in a story.
-you are broad-minded with a crazy sense of humor.
-you are looking for ground-breaking originality, experiment and bravery in a story
-you like to revisit multi-layered stories several times, discovering new nuances.
-you have Irish connections somewhere way back.

Maybe not so hot for you if:
-you like a good old-fashioned story to get stuck into – one that has a clear beginning, middle and end.
-you take offence easily at strong language
-you hate mysterious endings and like to find out what actually happened.
-you like cheerful stories where the romances always end positively.

Gift Recommendations

This might be a good choice for:
-student sons and daughters with an interest in writing.
-girlfriends who have been through a relationship rocky patch and can take the stories.
-men who you think need educating!
-grandmoms who have been there, got the T-shirt, and lived to tell the tale

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