At first, I didn't like Anne Enright's novel at all. I found it very hard to identify with any of the characters. Anne Enright's style of writing is quite singular, and takes some time getting used to. It took about a hundred pages before I really started to enjoy this composition.
Enright's narrative jumps forwards and backwards through time, leaping from one perspective to another. The restless nature of this novel makes it very hard prey to track down. Anne Enright's prose is very subtle too. Incidents flash by, but the gun kicks very little. I admittedly found myself lost in the early part of the novel, especially when minor characters came to the forefront, and then disappeared. This novel either seems as though it has been culled too well or not enough. There's quite a lot of extraneous material which hints at a broader narrative, with good ideas dispatched all too soon, so that you almost never get a handle on them in the first place. This novel stands comparison with Trezza Azzopardi's Booker nominated 'The Hiding Place'. Azzopardi also has a quite developed and unique style, and her narrative also flits through time, and from person to person. Yet, even although Azzopardi doesn't give a time and date for each chapter as Enright does, you're never ever lost in 'The Hiding Place' as you are in 'What are you Like?'.
Enright's novel is mostly the tale of two identical twin sisters divided at birth: Maria and Marie. One gets the impression that maybe Enright thought about keeping these two very similar names for her main protagonists: thankfully, Marie is also called Rose. When their mother dies during labour, Berts, their father, decides that he can only cope with one of the twins. It doesn't seem to matter particularly which one. Thus are the twins divided. Rose is adopted, and brought up in an English middle class home. Maria, brought up by Berts and new wife Evelyn, rebels and runs off to New York and goes a little mad. We seem to get more of her childhood than Rose's. Maria falls in love with the wrong man, and comes across a photograph of herself in his wallet when 12 - but the background and the "parents" are completely unfamiliar. Rose contemplates marriage with a Yuppie, and has an urge to find the mother who gave her up. Her quest brings treasures she never quite expected...
This novel is mostly viewed through the eyes of women, with Berts the only strong male character. It's almost as if Enright has to remind you of his presence towards the end, by his having a drunken kiss with a female co-worker at a Christmas party. It's a well told incident, but I've a suspicion that it's only been included to add a bit of melodrama. Evelyn, Berts' wife, is considering leaving him, and then she finds a letter from a strange woman... There are so many perspectives from the women characters that you can often put the book down, and forget where you were when you start to read again. Towards the end, the twins' mother, Anna, speaks from the dead in the first person. This is done so matter of factly that no hint of the supernatural is ever allowed to shine through. Anna tells the story of her life, but her privileged voice doesn't ever really seem to say anything significant. Although the divide between the generations of these women is done very well indeed: Evelyn and Anna spent their youth in a very different world from Maria and Rose. Berts notices that women's behaviour has changed a lot over his lifetime, and has to get used to the idea that women are drinking a lot more nowadays and that the term 'typing pool' is no longer politically correct or even employable.
Enright's prose is so subtle that it does take a long time for you to feel anything for the characters. Indeed, there are glimpses of the Kennedy family background, of the boy Valentine gone mad which hints at the cause of Maria's mental distress and of her mother's eccentricity. The resolution is also a quite trite and maybe a little too concise. However, Enright's prose is still a joy to read. She has a lot of wit, and there are great one-liners. She's also incredibly good at capturing the consciousness of her protagonists. There's a delicious passage where Maria's mind's eye sees a lamp and a coat in a window across the road as a hanging body. Even though she knows that the delusion is not real, her imagination still gets her incredibly worked up. Overall, this is a bitsy book, which doesn't quite fulfil all its ambitions. However, if you stick with it as I did, then you'll find Anne Enright's novel hugely rewarding towards the end.
Authortrek rating: 7/10.
Kevin Patrick Mahoney