‘You get old, you get fat, it all turns to shit, you die’: Ageing in Anne Enright’s Short Story Collection Taking Pictures – Review by Elena Gelasi

Anne Enright’s universe is the private sphere of ordinary people, predominantly women. Her writing is not designed to promote women’s issues and it takes a while when reading Taking Picturesto realize that all-but-one of the narrators are female. Love and what happens to it within a marriage is a prevalent theme of the collection. The relationship between women -complicated, multi-layered and contradictory- is another thread worth following. Memory and dreams are studied throughout the stories. Death is present: Murder (successful or not), failed pregnancy, death from cancer, anorexia and car accident. People die in Enright’s stories and grief is divided between pain (‘even now, I find myself holding my breath in empty rooms’ ‘Little Sister’) and the urgency to reassert life (‘She was ashamed of what she had felt as she stepped away from her mother’s grave. That lightness-it was desire…It was like she could fuck anything.’ ‘Honey’ and ‘We went out for a while, as though we hoped something good would come of it all-a little love.’ ‘Little Sister’). When Kitty loses her baby at 13 weeks of pregnancy she can at least tell herself that ‘she had been visited’ (‘In the Bed Department’). Life had been there and this is Enright’s consolation. If there is any. Life is her topic (of course –because what else is there to write about?) but what exactly is life? In ‘Here’s to love’ the 39-year-old narrator’s friend says: ‘The thing I like about you…is you tell it like it is. “You get old, you get fat, it all turns to shit, you die.”’  This is what this collection is about and all the stages in between. What interests me the most though, is the ‘getting old’ part. Enright describes old age particularly well. Ageing, memory and time are hinted at throughout the collection but there are three stories that scrutinize old age in the most perceptive of ways. Indeed, one of the few men described in a positive light is a 63-year old.

‘The Cruise’ is the story of a 70-year-old couple that finally goes to a long-awaited cruise to the Caribbean. The story is told by their daughter, Kate, who has the first realization of her parents’ future death while watching them go through the departure gate: ‘they walked through the departure gates, and were gone’. The couple’s cruise, their return, the memory of it, her father’s illness and, finally, his death are all narrated through the daughter’s perspective but not in the first person. Ageing and new experiences during old age come to us mediated through the daughter’s expectations and interpretation and through the narrator’s voice. This couple, Enright tells us, is somebody’s parents. These two old people on the boat are being watched.

It is not the places they visited that amazed the couple. ‘The big excitement was the ship…..it was like being in a shopping centre’. There were Jacuzzis, shops and bars and the old couple spent a week in a four-storey boat that they described as a spaceship. ‘You forgot all about the sea,’ her mother said. The trip was on the one hand ‘a dream, endlessly retold’ and on the other hand, a ‘disappoint[ment] with the world, now that seeing it was so easy’. The cruise was not the beginning of seeing the world. It was a glimpse and it was enough. ‘They had had their adventure. They would never leave the country again’, says Kate. And yet. There is something that Kate did not expect and that she has awkwardly come to realize. What her parents found more appealing – or needed – was not the Caribbean but the people they met. Only once does the mother feel the urge to see the sea: she runs in the middle of the night to the top of the boat to admire the night sky. Τhey have been infatuated by the inside of the boat and by ‘the other couples they met over dinner’. The world might have been a disappointment but the people of this world have not been so. They may not have told a lot about the islands but they have plenty of stories to tell about ‘the Carters from Yorkshire’. There is nothing about the Carters that Kate doesn’t know, as she ironically comments.

Kate is both surprised and displeased when her mother writes to the Carters to inform them about her father’s illness. The reason of her discontentment is not clearly stated: ‘I wish you wouldn’t, Mummy’. Whether it is a child claiming the parent or the young assuming they are entitled to patronize the old, her frankness is answered equally enigmatically by the mother: ‘I am seventy-two years of age’ alluding to a rather vague right that age has earned for her and questioning the roles within the family: who, if anyone, has the right to judge the other?

It is in Mr Carter’s arms that Kate found her ‘collapsed and sobbing’ at the funeral. Kate ‘…finally heard the sound they had all been hoping for since…It was the sound of weeping’. It is also by Mrs Carter’s words that we learn the mother’s name: Marjorie. To the Carters she is Marjorie.

The story ends with the mother, Marjorie, singing with the Carters, her new friends, at her husband’s funeral. Hasn’t this woman made any closer friends in the course of her 72-year-old life? What is it that brought her and her husband so close to this couple they have just met on a cruise? And above all: why not all the above? Are the expectations people have of old age too concrete and restrictive?

‘Della’, the last story of the collection begins with the dream of the elderly female narrator. It’s a familiar image, a vague recollection of naked boys playing in the banks of a river. Della starts with the observation that the elderly man next door is going blind and wonders whether she should point it out to him or call one of his fifty-year-old children (‘Imagine asking them to remember their own father – the shame of it’). By giving a brief account of all the reasons that led her to consider him ‘the world’s most irritating man’, Della also gives us an account of the ways their lives overlapped during the last fifty years of being neighbours and of the most significant events of their lives, like the birth of their children or the death of his ‘terrific’ wife. As she registers the noises he makes from the other side of the wall, she seems to be keeping track of her own life passing as well. (‘…she couldn’t remember what year it was, sometimes, if truth be told’. ‘What could he be up to in there? …16thApril –no noise’.) She takes notes ‘in case the man died’ since his children never visit but it is obvious from the start that she is not much visited herself. She describes how the awkwardness of their interactions drew them apart in the early years and how his wife was at the end left without friends: ‘…and that too may have been part of his plan’. Della decides to greet him once when they meet outside only to realize that he was unable to see her. Taps on the wall followed by taps in reply, leaving Della overwhelmed over an anticipated moment of communication add to the culmination of their despair. They are the only ones remaining in two neighboring houses that used to be filled with the noise of two families.

The story finishes with Della’s visit. She begins to clean the house pretending they had been close all along and she comes to the realization of the absurdity of the very few years that families live together ‘out of the eighty years that made up a life –eighty or more’. Nothing from the previous irritations and misunderstandings matters anymore. She is ‘a woman in his kitchen’ who is bound to ‘find him quite attractive, in the end’. The only thing that seems relevant to their present situation seems to be their persistent need for intimacy, communication and humanity.

‘Here’s to Love’ is a hymn to a kind of mature love that might not exactly bring happiness but ‘charges our lives with shape and light’. The 39-year-old narrator married to a 63-year-old Vietnamese man who has survived the invasion by the Japanese and the ‘Vietnam War’ speculates over the sadness of her male friends’ wives. ‘That feeling that you’re running out of road. It just gets women quicker’. Enright achieves a juxtaposition of love after marriage with kids and a love less ordinary. ‘My life took an unexpected turn’.  Most wives are unhappy because of the ‘destruction of all [their] dreams’. Shay, the narrator’s ex boyfriend with whom she is having a drink in this story, ‘loves a little gymnast and gets her to load the dishwasher for him, every night of the week’ whereas the narrator indulges in a love that is characterized by ‘distance and tenderness’. Her husband is a widower and a father of two sons, someone who has had another life in another country. He is someone who has loved another woman – someone he does not remember very well now and who could have also been ‘disappointed by her smallness of her life’. The narrator on the other hand is someone who never wanted to get married, something that her occasional boyfriends admired and appreciated. They are both past family expectations. They love each other for the sake of loving each other.

Enright illuminatesthe 63-year-old husband as a person who has experienced love, marriage, parenthood, disappointment, death – whatever comprises a life – and is now capable of offering love without projecting any expectations to his wife. In this story we have on the one hand the unhappy wives that blame their husbands for all the dreams they haven’t been able to pursue because they have had a family and on the other hand, Hoa, the elderly husband of this story who does not hold his wife responsible for anything.

The narrator, obviously, often feels accused of ‘making some deal with desire’, of compromising, because she has married someone so much older than her. She is apologetic over that, even lying to her friend for the reasons she married (‘We only did it for the visa. This is a terrible betrayal. It is not even true.’) . Because any lie sounds more believable than explaining away their unusual love or how Hoa’s ‘touch is always specific, and chosen, and light’.

When the narrator returns home feeling like she has avoided ‘a bullet in the back’ she has one image in mind: ‘His body in death; neat and beautiful on [their] marriage bed’: age and the prospect of death do not put limits or an expiration date to their love. On the contrary, the idea of the imminent end of life strips the characters from any other wish or desire and leaves them with a pure love for the other person.

Enright presents old age as the period when the need for communication is tenacious and urgent and when it is most probable to actually achieve higher levels of intimacy. Her younger characters seem to be failing to create honest relationships: marriages collapse, lies are being told, affairs happen: ‘Couples. I look at the rest of my life and despair’, says the narrator of ‘Taking Pictures’ who is about to get married. Enright’s older characters do not look upon their limited future. They even let go of the past. They seem to be her only characters taking hold of the present. And the only ones who dare to love.

 

Anne Enright, Taking Pictures, London: Jonathan Cape, 2008. 

Elena Gelasi is a PhD student at the University of Cyprus researching contemporary women’s short fiction. (MA in Studies in Fiction, University of East Anglia, BA in English, University of Athens, Greece)

 

 

 

 

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