At the end of A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway's hero, stunned and revolted by his lover's traumatic labour in childbirth, is asked a leading question: "Aren't you proud of your son?" "No," comes the desperate reply. "He nearly killed his mother."
At the centre of Anne Enright's new novel, What Are You Like?, there is an equivalent gash of raw pain. In Dublin in 1965, identical twin girls are removed from the womb of a woman with a brain tumour. Afterwards, her husband, Berts Delahunty, touches the corpse because he feels obliged to: ". . . he felt the size and carelessness of the stitches under the cloth and he knew that she had bled to death, and that it had taken her all day."
Confronted with the twin babies whom he unjustly blames for his wife's death, Berts decides on grounds of pragmatism to keep one and give the other away. "I called her nothing," he tells his second wife years later, when the truth about his abandoned daughter threatens to tear their marriage apart.
Between these two scenes, one of hubris and one of nemesis, this remarkable novel explores the different ways in which both twins, the kept and the abandoned, the named and the nameless, grow up in a shadow of guilt.
The first twin, Maria, has a conventional Roman Catholic upbringing in the home of her father, stepmother and half-siblings. Here Enright draws on the full comic potential of the Church: the same bitter-sweet absurdity that Seamus Deane captured in Reading in the Dark. Nuns turn up in What Are You Like? in the underwear department of a Dublin department store. Girls dressed as brides receive their first holy communion and afterwards are taken to the zoo. One of the party loses her knickers in the Lion House.
Beyond the pantomime hilarity, a contorted and guilty attitude to sex leads Maria to promiscuity, self-loathing, self-mutilation and, eventually, a nervous breakdown. Recovering, she takes a job in a boutique as a changing-room assistant: "Some days she was just nothing. Some days she was a woman who was just waiting for herself to walk in the door."
The second twin, named Rose by her adoptive English family, is similarly lacking in self-esteem. "Most of the time, Rose did not know who she was." She abandons a music degree, religiously avoids commitment in sexual relationships and ends up training as a probation officer because, although she wants to help people, she doesn't usually like them. On one occasion, she attends a memorial service for a deceased client and inexplicably assumes the role of "the girlfriend that never was, the nearly sister-in-law, the woman who had no place . . ."
It becomes increasingly difficult to tell these twin characters apart, not least because they are both preoccupied by being nobody. When they finally meet, it is in the changing room, surrounded by mirrors and "the ghosts of women who could not make up their minds". At this point, their mother, Anna, sends a letter from the grave in which she recalls her crazed response to the news that she was pregnant and dying.
So we never get far from sex and death - "life's two most important horizontals", as A L Kennedy recently described them. Against all the odds, Enright turns this raw, unwieldy material into a delightful novel. She is an intense and frenetic writer, jumping from one perception to the next, always on the accelerator or the brakes, sometimes dashing, sometimes silly, but never boring: "The hospital smells of accidents - the kind where you wet yourself, and the kind where you get knocked down by a bus. Maria is fine until the Holy Mary, when she realises that she isn't wearing any pants."
The reader, always running to keep up, never quite sure what to think or expect, ends up confused, but rather pleasantly so. Prescinding from the horror of childbirth, What Are You Like? couldn't be further away from the level terrain of Hemingway's novels.