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Humanity is the thread, and it's full of knots

Yesterday's Weather Stories Anne Enright Grove Press: 320 pp., $24

August 24, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

No ONE ever said fiction was supposed to make you feel good. Anne Enright, whose novel "The Gathering" won the Man Booker Prize last year, makes up for her consistent failure to deliver the warm and fuzzies with something else. In "Yesterday's Weather," she offers, for our comfort, the predictability of the human condition. Yes, there will be pain -- in any family configuration, in every phase of life -- but at least you can count on it.

Many of these 31 stories are like one-person plays. You can see the characters talking directly to the audience: "The poor child, who thought it was a laugh to sleep with my husband -- and it is a laugh, God knows I have laughed enough myself -- the poor child, who thought it was a laugh to sleep with the father of my three children, did something worse than all that. She went and died on him too. She went and died on us all."

Or try reading this passage out loud: "Mad. It's the kind of thing that rolls through your head, in this job, when you're sweeping or wiping -- it's very repetitive, cleaning. It's all over and back: over and back again. Your mind starts to run in some terrible groove, and you have to pick the right one or you end up with bombs on the underground and everybody you ever loved lying in the morgue."

The wife whose husband is a cheater, the cleaning lady and the rest of Enright's characters become their grievances; they have nothing but complaints. They no longer recognize themselves when they look in the mirror. In spite of life's predictability, they didn't see it coming, didn't think it would happen to them.

A young mother on holiday with her family sees a ghost in the trailer they have rented -- a grim, stiff woman whose endless laundry is never, ever done. "There was," Michelle, the young mother thinks (worried that the ghost will hitch a ride with them when they go home), "some other wreckage in her that Michelle did not yet recognise." Of course it's the "yet" that puts the chills in that sentence. It's the inevitable future breathing down our backs, even as we read, pretending to be above it all.

Very few of the characters in these stories rise above life's myriad complaints, but when they do, the reader roots for them, urges them on into the dispassionate atmosphere. In the story "Here's to Love," the narrator, a 39-year-old Irish woman, has married a 63-year-old Vietnamese man who was tortured and abused so much during the Vietnam War that he is beyond the petty complaints of her friends and former lovers. "This is what happens when love intersects with history," she thinks. "This is the distance you keep. Or it is the distance the Vietnamese keep. Or old men. Or it is the way my husband and I think about distance and tenderness -- it is just the way we are. Who knows? We will have no children. We are very happy. Or, no. We are not happy, exactly. But we love each other very much, and this charges our lives with shape and light."

It's good to have so many stories in one collection. There's room for voices to echo, ghosts to flit in the corners and characters to change shapes and roles but not necessarily problems. After all, the future's going to find you, no matter which neighborhood you live in.


Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

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