Anne Enright has been hailed as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Irish fiction, but it is very difficult to find a place for her in contemporary Irish criticism. To some extent this is a result of the preoccupation with issues of national identity and the state of Irish society that informs so much of current criticism, which means that literature that avoids these themes easily gets overlooked. Another explanation may be found in Enright’s fragmented storytelling, which means that themes are not always easily detected or obvious.
This paper considers Anne Enright’s 2001 novel What Are You Like? as a ‘postnationalist’ text, showing how both her narrative strategies and the themes she addresses can be linked to a position beyond nationalism. In the national story, the search for identity can usually be satisfied through information about genetic – and by extension ethnic – background and identification with the nation, but Enright demythologises many of the staples of earlier Irish fiction, such as rural farm life, family relationships and the moral superiority of nuns, and she does not replace these old stabilities with a new belief in genetics which could have been logical, since the story concerns twins. Instead of showing the primacy of heredity Enright argues, like so many postmodern writers, that identity is in constant process. Such a view is at odds with a vision of nationality founded on ethnic origin, and so both the characters’ personal search for selfhood and Enright’s deconstruction of common Irish myths can be linked to a postnationalist position.
A postnationalist reading of Enright’s novel obviously accepts the centrality of ‘nation’ in Irish literature to some extent, and overlooks other aspects of the work, such as its relationship to feminism or how early separation may affect the lives of twins, which is, after all, the novel’s most obvious theme. Given the preoccupation with questions of nation in present-day Irish literature and criticism, however, it is important to include also women’s writing in this context and to add expressions of postnationalism to the equation. The paper therefore primarily considers those elements in What Are You Like? that can be related to a postnationalist outlook.
Manchester: Manchester University Press , 2009. 216-231 p.