The Pleasure Of Eliza Lynch, by Anne Enright
This is an odd book, but there are at least two elements of this book that stand out to me in making it less enjoyable to read than it could have been. For one, the book has a confused timeline as the author appears not to want to write a straightforward tale but wants to jump forward and backward as a way of increasing the drama, even though the narrative involves the lives of people where there is little surprise. If people know anything about the Paraguayan War, they know how it ended and they know the hatred that Eliza Lynch attracted from others for her (never formalized) relationship with the nation’s dictator. Ambitious and social-climbing women with a light sense of moral decorum have always been viewed with contempt by other women and it is no different here. Likewise the other problematic aspect of this book is the way that it purports to tell the story of Eliza Lynch but it does so from the perspective of Lopez’s Scottish surgeon, so what we are getting is a view of Lynch that is colored by the perspective of someone else whose relationship with Lynch was problematic in a way that is only hinted at in the end of this novel.
This novel is a bit more than 200 pages and it is divided into four parts, each of them called “The River,” relating to Eliza Lynch’s relationship with the Paraguay River, and each of them with rather odd chronological jumps to hide the general progression of her life and to allow the author to repeat various matters over and over again, like Eliza’s beauty and seeming shallowness, the dire plight of Paraguay under the rule of its dictator who put people to death as Eliza played on the piano. The author seems to make much of the way that Eliza buried her lover and her son after they were killed at a remote massacre in 1870 that ended the Paraguayan War with the nation prostrate, but the book does not really end there and instead ends in Europe where two people compete over the right to make money off of a yrba mate concession that the author seems unwilling to discuss openly and honestly. Still, though, the main characters are interesting enough that this is a book worth reading even if it’s not straightforward enough for its own good.
This book is a novel so it makes no pretensions to historical fact. That said, it is a historical novel that takes a popular historical figure and puts her at the center of a novel and ends up not really being the sort of novel it sets out to be does lead to at least a few questions about the author’s own skill. Fortunately, the material included here is compelling enough that even if the author isn’t very skilled that the material makes up for it enough that this is still an enjoyable book to read. This is a literary fictional view of Eliza Lynch’s experiences in Paraguay, and it makes no pretense at being well-structured in an obvious sense. I don’t think this is my favorite novel (in fact, it is probably my least favorite novel) of three related novels I read about Paraguay during this time that all featured Eliza Lynch as an important character and all conveyed in at least some sense the horrors of life under the Lopez regime in the face of paranoia and the denial of accepting defeat so as to save one’s population from near-destruction. It seems like a message that should resonate in our troubled times.