Irish author Enright’s lush third novel is a real departure from its predecessors (What Are You Like?, 2000; The Wig My Father Wore, 2001): bleak, blunt studies of lonely women seeking familial and romantic connection.
This time, the eponymous heroine’s insatiable hunger to experience and possess make her an unstoppable feminine force: a Paraguayan Eva Peron (Enright’s Eliza being in fact based on a real historical figure). The story begins in 1854 when 19-year-old Eliza, a physician’s daughter on the rebound from an aborted marriage to a French surgeon, encounters Spanish railroad builder Francisco Solano López. He quickly supplants her several previous lovers, and the pregnant Eliza travels with López as his mistress to the Paraguayan capitol of Asuncion. There, he confronts the Catholic Church over the issue of her bastard son’s christening; goads Francisco (always referred to her as her “dear friend”) into becoming Paraguay’s ambitious, warmongering dictator; establishes a national theater and endears herself to her adopted country’s multitudes; and fascinates every male who wanders into the orbit of her rapacious beauty and vitality. Enright’s approach isn’t subtle: every chapter title denotes an object (“Veal,” “Champagne,” “Coffee,” etc.) related to Eliza’s progress, and the nature of her ineffable appeal is explicitly spelt out (“When a man is inside a woman, he rules the world”). But the tale consistently engages and entertains, and Enright sets up numerous interesting echoes and parallels by way of its unusual dual structure, in which Eliza’s own narrative of her exploits is confined to her early years (1854–5) in Paraguay, and successive later years are chronicled in chapters presented from the viewpoint of Scotsman William Stewart, López’s alcoholic personal physician (and another of Eliza’s many conquests).
A stylish account of the rise (she never actually falls) of a Latin American Moll Flanders—and a further step in Enright’s increasingly promising career.