It’s Like This…

What Are You Like? by Anne Enright
What Are You Like? by Anne Enright

1961 brought something amazing into the lives of every young girl who has ever attended a slumber party. The advent of games such as “Truth or Dare” and “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”? A guide to prank calling? No, sorry, what I’m talking about here is Disney’s smash hit The Parent Trap (in Technicolor), starring Hayley Mills as twins separated at birth: snooty Sharon McKendrick from Boston and freewheeling Californian Susan Evers. The underlying romantic story, which essentially declares “opposites attract,” brings the girls’ long-estranged mother and father back together in an all-too-perfect fashion. The film, marketed as a comedy full of high jinks, was nominated for two Academy Awards, netted $25,000 at the box office, and provided a springboard for three television sequels, a theatrical re-release in 1968, a popular remake more than 35 years later, and the remarkable ability for “Let’s Get Together, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” to get stuck in every viewer’s head. This is compelling stuff, and I have seen this movie at least ten times, mostly at sleepovers.

Susan and Sharon: Together at Last! © Disney
Susan and Sharon: Together at Last! ©Disney

So The Parent Trap was the first thing that popped in my head after I read a quick synopsis of What Are You Like? by Anne Enright. The book shifts between Dublin, New York, and London as it explores the emotions of Maria and Marie (rechristened Rose after her adoption) as the women slowly understand this “other part” of themselves. I certainly didn’t think that the novel would read anything like the sugary-sweet film—I’ve read other books by Enright, including her 2007 Man Booker-winner The Gathering, and I’ve also had the great pleasure of hearing her speak at an event for volunteers at Fighting Words, a creative writing center in Dublin. Her writing is precise, yet esoteric; overly familial, yet completely foreign. But the notion of twins separated at birth? I just don’t have any cultural touchstones besides Sharon and Susan. Forgive me, Ms. Enright.

A simile about smiles...
A simile about smiles…

If you’ve had a good teacher or two, some things—like times tables—just become a permanent part of your knowledge base. Therefore, any reader, writer, or SAT-taker will recognize a simile: a comparison between two unlike objects using “like” or “as.” And talented authors just have a way with using unconnected events and items to illustrate a character or plot point. Here are a few that I’ve pulled up:

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

“She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.” — The Adventure of the Three Gables, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

At the beginning of the book, Enright’s similes and metaphors come easily to the reader. A “same, but different” theme emerges, and readers can nod their heads in total understanding of this genetic fascination, relayed through well-written, but “easy” language. For instance, when Maria, raised in Ireland by her father and stepmother after her biological mother dies in childbirth, steps into the house of neighbor Mrs. Quinlan, “…she realises it is the same as their house, except it is the wrong colour. Except it is the wrong smell. Except it is the wrong way around! The kitchen goes to the left instead of the right and when you try to go into the dining room there is a massive blank wall.” Similarly, before her father Berts remarries, baby Maria spends each day of the week with a different family member or neighbor. Enright describes how the child spends time exploring on the carpet of each house and meticulously illustrates the different intricacies of each pattern. Again, “same, but different.”

But when Maria stumbles across an old picture of someone who looks remarkably like her, Enright notes that “…there was the fact that she looked different, even though she was the same. It was hard to put your finger on it. She had the right mouth, but the wrong voice might come out of it. She had the same eyes, but they had seen other things. Her hair was the same, but the parting was on the other side…[Maria] had always felt like someone else. She had always felt like the wrong girl.” And this is the point where the reader beings to internalize the fact that “twins separated at birth” is, well, kind of a big deal. It is the point where Enright begins to unleash her trademark vivid and seemingly cryptic language and imagery. And it is also the point where, to me, the book becomes a work about simile and comparisons—and the difficult parameters language erects when we try to describe grand, large-scale emotion.

Remember, the book is titled What Are You Like?, not Who Are You? or I Can’t Believe I Have a Twin! It’s as if the young women are asking each other, “How do I put you in context of what I know? What experiences can I dial up to make me understand this?” This is a phenomenal experience, so Enright brings out phenomenal language.

The best review that I have ever read on Amazon is actually for What Are You Like? It is simple and funny and to-the-point: “The author’s concept of this odd book had to come from the seam of her eye where the mist and the rocks blow together like the Brussels sprouts of yesterday’s backyard tire swing. If you liked this review, you’ll love the book.” (For what it’s worth, I loved the book.)

And that is Anne Enright for you. However, this book is not a trippy traipse through Wonderland. Rather, it is thick with plot and ably explores the profound relationships between family members and the surrounding community when characters feel like “something is missing” and subsequently muster the courage to figure out how they “fit in.” The only aspect of her work that could even remotely be called esoteric or cryptic is her attention to how her characters feel and how they attempt to understand these feelings.

Maria, for instance, experiences things abstractly and acutely well before she has any concrete inkling of a long-lost twin. Here is how the author describes a time where a young Maria visits the family farm of her deceased mother: “Maria had never seen rain before. She had never seen rain that started a mile away, a high smudge under the clouds. It looked different to everything – like the bit of a drawing you tried to rub out with your finger. Soon I will be inside that rain, she thought. I will be there…Maria buzzed around the barn, and itched where the hay caught her. If you had asked what she was then, she would not have been able to tell you. Out in the rain she would have been wet, she would have been a girl from Dublin caught in the rain, but here in the barn she was anything at all.” This is an Irish girl; obviously, Maria has “seen rain before.” Yet Enright means something different, for in Maria’s mind, this rain dictates a new emotion that she’s feeling—one that she might not ever be able to put into words, but one that she will always associate with this particular rainstorm and visiting with biological relatives whom she doesn’t know at all.

Similarly, the author has this to say about Maria’s stepmother, Evelyn, who has resigned herself to a generally benign life, one where she and her husband inch toward indifference, with her stepdaughter and biological children following suit: “That night Evelyn dreamt of sperm and the smell maddened her. It lingered in the morning and made her ashamed. It was her fifty-third birthday. Time to throw things out, she thought, and started with a plastic bag full of shoes that had taken the shape of her feet. Ghost steps, and all the wanderings she had never made, knotted at the top and left out for the bin men, waltzing in the quiet, in the rain.”

How to make emotional sense of this?
How to make emotional sense of this?

This is how Anne Enright uses simile. She may not always use “like” or “as”—and the reader may be a little befuddled at times as to what exactly her imagery means—but the wide swath of emotion that she gives her characters is indicative of her ability to use their experiences to inform their lives.

So, in a way, the plot of What Are You Like? isn’t about the mechanics of how these two girls come to find each other. Instead, Enright takes a ripped-from-the-headlines and popular plot and takes it to its basest level in order to give us a potential clue as to what something as profound as “twins separated at birth” is really like.

 

 

Just the Facts

The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry
The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry

“Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.” – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my tried-and-true, go-to authors. From the first time I picked up a copy of The Bean Trees in the 1950s-bowling-alley-turned-Barnes-and-Noble in downtown Bellevue, I knew I would like it. Originally, it was the cover art and fluorescent orange spine that made me pick up the book, but after I bought it and actually read it, I knew I was under the spell of this author. Although the eccentricity of a blind babysitter named Edna Poppy and a shop called Jesus is Lord Used Tires stood out to this 17-year-old, what I really enjoyed was Kingsolver’s ability to show me other sides to issues and situations that I didn’t know much about, such as underground railroads for immigrants and rural Appalachian towns. It was all very eye opening, yet in a quirky-character-driven sort of way. But as much as I love to read Barbara Kingsolver, I’d also argue that her novels sometimes lean toward the pedantic and heavy-handed side; she may write sympathetic characters for both sides of an issue, but at times, they turn into caricatures of themselves.

Reading from the perspective of “the other” is one of the gifts of fiction, yet how can a reader tease out the nuances in complicated conflicts? Do we need to read exaggerated versions of stereotypes in order to “get” them? Conflict is a constant throughout history: We already know that struggles have two or more sides to them, and anyone over the age of 25 or so should (hopefully) know that a 100% fool-proof version of events is about as elusive as being given a Cherokee baby and naming her Turtle, as happens in The Bean Trees.

A Barbara Kingsolver collection
A Barbara Kingsolver collection

But this particular post isn’t about Barbara Kingsolver. Instead, I’m writing about The Temporary Gentleman by Irish author Sebastian Barry. The way that he creates empathy for his characters differs from Kingsolver’s method—Barry has an interesting track record using an approach that, whether he intends to or not, allows readers to empathize with different players in his plots without sermonizing or writing garishly unrealistic characters.

First, the author gives his characters their own concrete story, told via first-person narration. They may waver in their convictions and sense of purpose, but they own their perspective.

The Temporary Gentleman is the story of Jack McNulty, an Irish soldier serving with Great Britain during World War II. It is the story of a man trying to decipher what it means to be Irish nearly forty years after Ireland gained independence from Britain and what it means to fight in a war in which his own country has claimed neutrality. And it is the story of a man and his family—wife Mai and daughters Maggie and Ursula—damaged by alcohol abuse. The Temporary Gentleman showcases Jack’s woulda, shoulda, coulda reflection of his life. Barry uses time shifting to tell Jack’s story, as readers are brought from Sligo, in Northwest Ireland, to his time in Accra, in present-day Ghana, with the British Merchant Navy and back and forth both in locales and years.

After a brief recollection of his family’s history, Jack ruminates, “Though this was a history without documents, it constituted in my father’s mind a faithful and important record of real things. And it was from this that inevitably I drew a sense of myself in the world, and I never questioned any of it.” It’s as if Barry is saying, Here’s Jack’s take on the story. He knows it’s his alone—and shaped by his own history—but receive it and realize that you’re getting one singular, but very particular, vantage point.

Our stories and our perspectives are innately selfish; no one is immune from seeing the larger world in relation to our own, microscopic one. In the case of Jack, he is quick to see numerous facets of his life in Accra in relation to his life in Ireland, although on the surface, these two places could not be more different. While filtering his foreign surroundings, Jack compares what he pays his houseboy Tom Quaye to what his brother Eneas received in the Royal Irish Constabulary. As his houseboy whisks him to nearby Osu for a night out, Jack watches the “sullen, sunken presence of the Atlantic shore…and suddenly [his] mind was filled with memories of Sligo nights.” Further, I find it hard to believe that mere coincidence or carelessness would allow the author to give the name Tom to both one of Jack’s brothers as well as his houseboy in Accra. At one point, he thinks his houseboy “the very spit of [his] brother Tom, years ago in his dancehall at Strandhill.”

Not American!
Not American!

I suppose it’s a bit like seeing a Honda here in Dublin, where that brand of car isn’t too popular. The first time I spied an Accord, arguably one of the most common cars in America, a quick drop of homesickness spit at me. Or there is the time that an Australian friend posted a picture of a motorway exit sign on Facebook; Aussie signage apparently looks an awful lot like the emerald-green American freeway signage, so again, a little lump appeared in my throat at the sight of something so seemingly familiar. Yet, the irony, of course, is that neither of these concrete objects is American; it’s just how an American would claim them as “theirs.” Those glimpses of homesickness or association with concrete reminders of home may belong to me, but the objects themselves can play a part in anyone’s story.

This appropriation of items, scenes, and people colors Jack’s tendency to see things the way he wants to see them. As he remembers watching Louis Armstrong, in Accra to perform, he notes “The white wives laughed with delight at the sheer musicality of it all, a few inches from the black wives, laughing with the same delight.” This performance occurs “as the pot of freedom was boiling,” and the reader ponders this picture of a conflict-free harmony that Jack paints: Are they “delighted” for the same reasons? And when Jack relays how, after a wild and alcohol-infused night with Tom Quaye, he wakes up to see his room doused in his own urine and feces and how Tom dutifully and matter-of-factly surveys the state of the room (and then presumably cleans it up), the reader must wonder: What is Tom Quaye really thinking?

And how do others see Jack McNulty? Here is the beauty of learning about Jack McNulty and the family that shapes him: The Temporary Gentleman is not the first book in which he’s appeared.

You see, Jack McNulty isn’t a new character for Barry. And for readers of his other works, they will already have met Mai, Jack’s brother Tom, as well as a despondent and somewhat pitiful minor character in Gentleman: Roseanne, Tom McNulty’s wife and the main character in Barry’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Secret Scripture. Although Gentleman gives readers a glimpse into Jack’s life from his own vantage point, here’s what Roseanne has to say about Jack in the 2008 novel in which she centers: “The epic story of Jack – a little epic, an ordinary epic, a local epic, but epic for all that – was unknown to me. All I saw, or began to see, was two spick-and-span brothers coming in for their cups of tea, any Chinese leaf for Tom, and Earl Grey by preference for Jack.” Or this: “Because [Jack] had been in Africa he also had strange phrases like ‘Act the white man.’ And ‘hamma-hamma’. Because he had seen a thousand drunken nights, another phrase was ‘Keep the party clean.’” Roseanne indicates that Jack cares about social class (and potentially looks down at her because of her Presbyterian background) and “…had those smalltown filmstar looks, you’d be in the cinema watching Broadway Melody or some such, and when the lights would go up at the end, yes, you’d be back in bloody Sligo – except for Jack. Jack still had some halo of Hollywood about him.” In short, he was a big-man-around-town who wooed others with his charm, and while I suppose that representation comes across somewhat in Gentleman, it is Roseanne’s account in Scripture that helps to round out the picture. (Barry also wrote The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, which I have not read, but which describes how the third McNulty brother was forced to flee Ireland and introduces readers to the McNulty family. Eneas is mentioned briefly in the two other books, in a “hushed” manner.)

Any Journalism 101 class will give students an exercise to demonstrate how different vantage points—either ideological or physical—will result in different stories depending on the source. Let’s think of this as Sebastian Barry delivering The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, and the Irish Independent to his readers in one bundle.

Being Informed 101: Vary Your Sources
Being Informed 101: Vary Your Sources

One of Barry’s best lines goes to Roseanne in The Secret Scripture: “For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of the withering truth…Friend or enemy, no one has the monopoly on truth. Not even myself, and that is also a vexing and worrying thought.”

My first thought after finishing The Temporary Gentleman? I’d next like to read Mr. Barry’s take on the houseboy Tom Quaye and his experiences with British colonialism. I know the stereotypes, so I don’t need moralizing or fringe personifications. I’d like just the facts—Tom Quaye’s facts.