Anne Enright is one of with my favourite contemporary writers. Having gobbled up The Gathering, her Booker prize winning tale of a family imploding, the beautiful Forgotten Waltz and her collection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, I thought I’d worked my way through all her fiction back catalogue.
Impatient for more, I was delighted to discover there were still a couple of her novels I hadn’t yet read, including this, her 2003 book based on the life of the notorious Eliza Lynch.
Set in Paraguay in the 19th century, Eliza was an Irish woman who became the unofficial Queen of Paraguay as the mistress of Francisco Solano López the dictator of this landlocked South American country. According to this article in The Guardian, Lynch has gone down in history as a gold digging prostitute who encouraged her paramour down a path that would lead to the bloodiest war in South American history. Her reputation is such that she featured alongside Lucrezia Borgia in a 1995 book called The World’s Wickedest Women.
Lynch catches López’s eye in Paris and takes her back to his hometown of Asuncíon on a journey across a tumultuous ocean and a meandering river. On arrival this unmarried foreigner is viewed with suspicion and hostility by the locals. The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is Enright’s attempt to wrestle the much maligned woman’’s reputation from the swamp of history, but her true character remains rather murky. All the characters are (deliberately?) shadowy, even the Scottish doctor William Stewart who watches over the novel through a drunken haze, never feels fully formed. Eliza’s ambitions and pleasures are equally as nebulous.
As one of Enright’s earlier published works, the novel reads like an author getting to grips with their talent; it’s a rambling, non-linear, repetitive work that at times feels as if Enright spewed up a thesaurus, the language as dense and at times as suffocating as the Paraguayan heat.
But while the novel is erratic and confusing, there are hints of the greatness that Enright would go on to achieve in her later works.
by Suzanne Elliott