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BOOKS: Angel delights

THE WIG MY FATHER WORE by Anne Enright, Cape £15.99
ANNE ENRIGHT's prose is so densely packed with one-liners that it's tempting to quote the lot. In her striking and bizarre collection of stories, The Portable Virgin, she presented characters locked in a world they didn't understand, testing their own reality in weird, if not certifiable, ways. In this, her first novel, she goes one step further.

An angel arrives on the doorstep of the central character, Grace. He asks for a cup of tea and her life is changed for ever. The angel, Stephen, was a bridge builder in Canada before his suicide, one cold night in 1934, left him with a "lingering pain for humanity and a susceptibility to the weather". He asks Grace a series of questions, moves in and watches telly. One of the programmes he sees is the one which Grace produces: The Love Quiz, "a great and embarrassing show" with "fake games, pink sex and a lot of laughs". A wild parody of Blind Date, it represents all that is cynical, tacky and superficial in human relationships, providing an ironic counterpoint to the story of Grace's growing love for Stephen.

Both these intertwining narrative strands take place against the background of Grace's family relationships. Her father, who wears a wig - "a tough, wiry wig with plenty of personality" - lives, after two strokes, "on the wrong side of the mirror". He sits in front of the television all day, making mad but uncannily apt observations. Her mother looks after him, full of frustration, irritation, affection and compassion. "Living with your father it's like 2 down and 6 across," she says, but her love for him is conveyed in a few carefully chosen details: the care she takes in washing his wig, the endless patient conversations, the teasing out of meanings. She also argues with Grace, chats on the phone to Stephen and moans to him about her strange and successful daughter. It's all deftly done, in a pithy and compressed prose. The brief glimpses and snippets of conversation amount to a picture of family life that is affectionate, gutsy and moving.

Enright's epigrammatic style, which juxtaposes abstract thought and generalisations with the concrete and trivial, is not just about wisecracks - it extends to the very heart of the novel and the traditional division between sacred and secular. Stephen literally spreads sweetness and light, painting Grace's flat white and filling her kitchen cupboards with Angel Delight - the book is a kind of Three Colours White for the page. Grace's body becomes smoother, whiter and less flawed as the novel progresses and Stephen, her "wonderful inflatable angel", becomes more solid and more hairy. The white world of the angelic narrative - of growing innocence, purity and tolerance - meets the pink world of The Love Quiz when Stephen takes part in an episode, with riotous results. The celestial and physical worlds come together even more dramatically in the love scenes between Stephen and Grace, beautifully and erotically described. When Stephen finally disappears, Grace is pregnant. The angel in this annunciation is not just a messenger.

Enright's cool, razor-sharp prose is a mesmerising vehicle for emotions ranging from boredom to passionate love and grief. Well aware that "we all have to get through, any way we can" she begs us to "look at these windows, marvels and wonders". The wig Grace's father wore is a symbol of a wild, exuberant ability to celebrate "the astonishing web of the ordinary that keeps the wheels on cars, the nails out of tyres and the sun swinging in the sky".