Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A woman who knows how to write

Several months ago, Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul infamously opined that women authors are inferior.  He argues that women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world" leads to them writing "...all this feminine tosh."  Of course, he quickly asserted, he didn't mean any of it unkindly.  When I read the article, I quickly jotted down a list of women authors whose work consistently astonishes me, in part because of its lack of sentimental "tosh."  Writers like Geraldine Brooks, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Marilynn Robinson, Toni Morrison, Margaret AtwoodKate Chopin (who was excoriated for her lack of sentimentality), and Jamaica Kincaid all jumped to mind.  One who didn't, but ought to have is Anne Enright, Man Booker prize-winner for The Gathering and Irish author extraordinaire.

Enright has published a new book.  The Forgotten Waltz poses, for me, an interesting question: Can you like a book if you don't like the characters?  There isn't anyone in this book who reads as particularly sympathetic.  I found myself reading the book increasingly frustrated by the characters.  Gina, the narrator and protagonist, is a 32-year old married woman who embarks on an affair without much buildup or apparent cause or remorse.  Sean, her married lover and father of a 12-year old daughter who's somewhat cryptically referred to as "not quite right", has clearly done this before.  The supporting cast are not particularly more sympathetic.  I did not feel a connection with any of the characters but despite that, or perhaps even because of it, I was completely engrossed by the book.

While I did not particularly care for the characters, and the plot itself is rather unremarkable, Enright's writing is breathtaking.  There is very little sentimentality, but a great deal of evocative prose.  Simple sentences are used to convey much more.  One of the most striking examples for me came in the days after Gina's mother's death. Gina wanders through her mother's home, noting that the mirror is the cleanest thing in the house because it refuses to hold on to the past.  Enright's writing is crisp and meaningful, and that it was a written by a women doesn't make that particularly noteworthy.  Enright is one of a tradition of great depth and great breadth: excellent women authors. 

Incidentally, for a little fun, check out this quiz that The Guardian put together to see if you can determine whether a passage was written by a man or a woman.  They've dubbed it "The Naipaul Test."  Perhaps it could also be named "The Enright Test."

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