Sam Thompson, ‘Still Life with Parrot’, review of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch,
in Times Literary Supplement ( 6 Sept. 2002 ), [p.23]

Eliza Lynch was a real person, but her life was certainly the stuff of fiction. Born in Ireland in 1835, she was a cosmopolitan adventuress who became the lover of Francisco Solano López, the heir to the dictatorship of Paraguay . She travelled home with him to Asunción, bore his son and reputedly was, for a time, the richest woman in the world. She also witnessed (or presided over) the catastrophic wars into which the megalomaniacal López plunged his nation; between 1865 and 1870, Paraguay was at war with Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina simultaneously.

These facts give Anne Enright’s third novel its navigation points. The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is keenly aware, however, of the gulfs between events and their telling. By page two, Eliza and López are ‘already unreal’, because they have entered not only Enright’s fiction, but also the larger fiction of history: ‘They were the kind of people who attracted stories - not to mention bias, rumours, lies, rage; the whole tangle pulled into a knot by time, made Gordian by history. The details cannot be unpicked.’

Instead, Enright reimagines the details, with virtuoso skill. Eliza’s story is expansive, even picaresque, as she travels upriver to Asunción, engages in a social battle for supremacy in the suspicious provincial capital, and later becomes the figurehead for the Paraguayan war effort; but her progress is evoked on the most particular scale, impression by impression and sentence by meticulous sentence. She observes the river: ‘The water, so cheap and nothing up close, is, from afar, a tangle of brilliants. A dangerous cloth.’ This is one swift, sharp perception among many. It is also a serviceable emblem for the novel altogether: no single handful has priority or structural primacy, but the whole dazzles.

Life, this implies, is made up fundamentally of details - of things. Each chapter is headed by a concrete noun, usually a foodstuff. ‘Asparagus’, ‘Veal’, ‘Truffles’, ‘Coffee’, and so on. Similarly, the title and even the dustjacket (which shows a painting, ‘Sumptuous Still Life with Parrot’) suggest that the novel is principally a sensual feast. This is true; but it is not quite the lush, overripe feast that might be inferred. Neither place nor period is wantonly exoticized, or guilty of gratuitous vividness.

Rather, the thoroughgoing pleasure of Eliza Lynch is the bright exactitude of the writing, and its capacity for surprise. This extends from simple felicities like ‘hot biscuity champagne’ and ‘Senor López is blithered by waistcoats’, to arresting details, such as ‘the terrible urge to shit that might swell inside’ the soldiers after killing, or to deadpan, spring-loaded one-liners, whose comedy might have been learnt from Enright’s compatriot Samuel Beckett: the disappointed woman who ‘Vent very still and worked on a stomach cancer. Something she could call her own.’

The broad historical sweep, then, is no part of the purpose. When we glance at the wider canvas of the wars, it is in the form of a literal (if hypothetical) epic battle-painting, with the characters depicted in miniature: ‘’It is possible they all saw themselves as standing on a magnificent canvas, one that might run the length of an old hall ... strategic details compressed into a tea-coloured distance.’ It appears that to try and make sense of events on such a scale is to transform them into a mere flattened artefact.

Instead, Enright’s far-reaching phrases are put to loving work mapping personal interiors. Eliza’s complicated charisma, and her vigorous self-creation in the midst of men and women who both worship and despise her, recall the work of Angela Carter (who was Enright’s creative writing tutor at the University of East Anglia ). Eliza’s foil is Dr Stewart, her personal physician, ‘the pride of Edinburgh University, stunned and soulful and drunk’. Stewart, who ‘regretted the fact that he had lived a life of constant regret”, and breaks his heart over sunsets and a small piece of tartan, is hilarious and piercingly sad; his superbly hangdog consciousness is one of the novel’s principal pleasures.

Henry James wrote that ‘the novel is of its very nature “ado”, an ado about something’. With that in mind, we can note that in this case, the form matches the content. In dealing with a marginal but also peculiarly public figure, the fiction emphatically joins nineteenth-century Paraguay in making an ado about Eliza. Lynch, turning her into ‘a kind of national Thing’. But, as fiction can, it also explores the obverse. It makes an ado about those things for which there is really nothing ado as far as history is concerned - characters like Eliza’s unfortunate maid Francine, or scenes like the mesmeric river-journey to which the narrative repeatedly returns. ‘I can see it, even with my eyes closed’, says Eliza of the brilliant river water. This is a novel that does with superior, discreet art what novels are uniquely fitted to do, and that lingers on the retina.

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