It seems smart-alecky to call someone a “darling of the literati,” implying, as it does, that she’s no more than the flavor of the month, but certainly Anne Enright fits the first description. In her 40s, she’s published nine books, one of which, “The Gathering,” received the Man Booker Prize in 2007. Given her prominence, an American publisher has thought to bring her 2004 memoir to the United States. It’s a story based on that most traditional, tried-and-true material: having, or “making,” babies.
After 18 years of married life, in her late 30s, she writes: “We knuckled down to having children. It was not an impulse decision.”
“The reason I kept writing about my babies,” she tells us, “even when they were asleep in the room, was that I could not think about anything else.” Her children — unnamed here — are a girl and then, two years later, a boy. Like many of us who have had kids, she became a prisoner of love, obsessed, entranced, evidently convinced that her children were the most amazing infants in the world. It’s a fairly common claim, one looked upon with tolerance by other parents, so “Making Babies” would seem to be a sure-fire hit in literary terms, because even intellectuals have kids — not to mention the rest of us. But I have to say I was troubled — saddened — by this book.
Before that, here are some pleasing parts: Enright writes in fragments because, she says,babies take up so much of her time and are constantly interrupting. She has been known to work on a computer while holding a baby. Babies, when they are big enough to sit on the floor, lean forward expectantly (as do the extremely old ladies she invokes in the last pages). Starting on page 136, we find three pages of crying, as in: “haNang. haNang. haNang. haNang. haNang.” And this goes on. And on. And on. It will ring a bell with parents.
Enright describes her two labors in fairly close detail. During the first, she lows like a cow, and that’s a fairly good description of what’s been known to happen. During the second, as her epidural seems to be working on only one side of her body, she ponders one of the greatest mysteries of womankind: Having gone through the rigors of childbirth once, why, on God’s Earth, would a woman want to do it again? And she ponders her own mother, who went through it not once but five times.
In Ireland, of course, strict parish priests have had a lot to say about that particular course of events, and Enright is generous with her scorn about them. She’s also scathing about social scientists who spend time conducting pointless experiments to arrive at the “fact” that women should stay home after having their babies and keep their mouths shut. She calls these scientists “baboons” and refers to the crucified Christ in such impudent terms that I cannot quote her.
Then there are the fragments about the babies themselves: sentences on toys, baby talk, crazy crying, dirt, Velcro shoes, a feces-encrusted vest, baby staring and, naturally, “On Giving Birth to a Genius.” Some of this material is wonderful; some of it you have seen many times before. The lengthy fragment about how trying a 2-year-old can be is, to put it mildly, trite. By the time she writes that “tiny babies smell like kissing someone in a field,” you may think that you’ve had enough.
One thing Enright doesn’t mention is postpartum depression, which can be so harmful and perilous and yet so often glossed over as “the blues.” What she does mention, however, in the last chapter, is her suicide attempt and long stay in a sanitarium before she ever thought of having children. She’s always had a love of death, she tells us, and describes in detail her gruesome days spent recovering. But, she writes of depressives, “Like alcoholics we are never cured. It takes rigour. No sharp knives. No breakages of the skin. No baths after nightfall. No pockets.” And — invoking Virginia Woolf — “no rocks.”
What’s the implication here? That babies are lifesavers? What is the purpose? To establish her motivation if, in a few years, the worst occurs? To establish a niche in a certain literary pantheon? I hate to think of her children reading that last chapter when they grow up.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.
Stumbling into Motherhood
By Anne Enright
Norton. 207 pp. $24.95