Taking Pictures, by Anne Enright

Blood, guts and heart-stopping beauty
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To say that Anne Enright's stories are about sex, death and raising children might be superfluous, even tautologous. After all, isn't that what all stories are about? The difference here is that the physical business of living, dying and getting born is so much closer to the surface. Death is an "outrage"; a penis looks like "giblets"; motherhood is a gross combination of exasperation and snot. Often, they all become mixed up in one, bloody analogy: "Hazel was so angry she thought she might pop something, or have some style of a prolapse; her body, after the baby, being a much less reliable place."

In less confident hands, this could all seem like too much information. A barrier is being crossed here. On one side is chick lit and the lady newspaper columnist, gamely banging on about sex and relationships and hopeless husbands, and at times Enright hovers comfortably on this side of the fence. "It is possible all men have a problem with water," jokes the narrator of "Pale Hands I Loved, Beside the Shalamar". Then she leaps the fence with alarming agility, plunging into the "bare walls" of a mental asylum, "a smell everywhere of bleach and sperm that was like your own madness, not theirs".

In "Della", the narrator worries about her elderly neighbour, "more intimate with her than she liked, on the other side of their brick wall". Reading these stories is less like walking in on the neighbours having sex, and more as if someone had been spying on your own family life, with all its betrayals, squelches and farts. The wife in "Until the Girl Died", who finds her husband weeping over the sudden death of "some girl", his mistress, feels she is "living on the page of some horrible Sunday newspaper". The story begins wondering "what men 'want', and the damage they might do to get it". It ends with the satisfaction that "this stupidity, this incontinence of my husband's was too small to bother about."

These stories are often gross, but it would be wrong to conclude that they are grim. The collection is haunted, by dead mothers, missing sisters and religious guilt. But among the ghosts and smells and screams that saturate life, there are unexpected opportunities for joy. The religious imagery (more bleeding Jesus than Christ redeemed) can be heart-stoppingly beautiful. A couple holding each other, in "Pale Hands...", is "a pieta".

Among the blood and guts of human existence, Enright deals beautifully with life in the modern world. The idea of elderly parents sending a video message, "like something from a science fiction film: a message from another star, sent many years before", is lovely. These stories are less like pictures in an album than elements of a tasting menu. Each one is different: delicate or rich, dense with slight flavours or pungent smells. They're not heavy; you just need a glass of water and a deep breath between each course.

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