Eliza Lynch, the protagonist of Anne Enrights beautiful new novel, is a magnificent and dreadful creature of near-mythic proportions, a grand courtesan in the tradition of Madame de Pompadour. She is also an actual historical figure, rescued from oblivion by Enrights precise, sensuous prose.
Born in Ireland to a doctor father and the estimable Adelaide Schnock (My mother came from a naval family, and her brother fought with Nelsons fleet. There are certificates for all this, and letters, in three or four different countries), Eliza was married early and unhappily at the age of 15 to a man called M. Quatrefages who served with the French forces in Algeria, but not before she had lost her innocence to a friend of her fathers and tasted the great power of sexual prowess.
In 1854, at the age of 19, Quatrefages far behind her, she took as her lover one Francisco Solano López, the heir apparent to Paraguay.
As we are told from the outset of the novel, many people would come to regret this moment. You might say that everyone came to regret it - except for the two participants, Francisco López and Eliza Lynch, Il Mariscal and La Lincha, Paco and Liz. Already unreal.
The wry, knowing tone of this introduction, familiar to Enrights readers, disappears after the first chapter. The story of Eliza and Franciscos return to Paraguay, she heavy with child, and of their subsequent reign and disastrous warmongering, is presented in alternating chapters told in the first person from Elizas point of view, and in the third from that of the Scottish physician, Dr Stewart, who has accompanied the couple to Paraguay.
Elizas is the narrative of her initial boat trip, in the Tacuarí, up the Rio Paran, often becalmed in the sweltering heat and contending with the drunken sailors, screaming monkeys and long, hot evenings aboard ship. She plans her daily wardrobe (her lusciously described ensembles are all named: the Diana, the Chère Amie, the Impératrice, etc.), schemes about how best to retain the affections of her lover (whom she takes to calling my dear friend), and muses about the impending birth.
It is left to Dr Stewart to describe what happens to her in Paraguay, and what she becomes: a 19th-century Eva Perón, adored or reviled by her subjects depending largely upon their gender, facing humiliations in society and emerging, until the last, triumphant, through an indomitable force of will.
More than 10 years after her arrival in South America, when Paraguay is in the depths of battle and well on the way to its ultimate grim rout, she shines most brightly: When she entered a room - it might be some bare room in the camp at Léon - when the men scraped their chairs back and stood, it was more than courtesy that moved them, it was the knowledge that, unlike the wives-daughters-sisters-camp girls, she understood the gravity of their great enterprise, and that, in some lovely, easy way, she belonged to them all. The most beautiful woman in the world.
This woman, who lovingly holds the hand of a dying sailor on the Tacuarí in 1854, is also a monster of ambition, sending thousands to their deaths while arranging elegant suppers, and blithely playing the piano at executions. And yet, she never gains the ultimate prize, of marriage to her dear friend, and when she loses both him and her beloved first-born son, it is impossible not to be moved by her final defeat, by the dignity of her bearing and by her terrible, terrible isolation.
Enrights novel is primarily one of arresting and delicately conjured images, and in that sense it is more poem than story. From the flight of butterflies - They all sat and stirred like ladies in a garden, their skirts parting to show underskirts of more beautiful hue, a flash of violet, a swish of peony edged with black - to the sight of slumbering seamen - The sailors have covered themselves with cloth against the mosquitoes. They look like furniture in a house that has been shut up. Or dead men, pinned by cobwebs to the floor - tiny observations, like grand scenes, are illuminated by metaphor.
The cumulative effect is languorous and dense, as befits the Latin climate and the courtesans meticulous self-construction. The minor characters pale beside Elizas glow, and the plot (if so sweeping an arc can be thus designated) seems sometimes slowed, like the Tacuarí on the river. But, in Enrights deft hands, form is made to fit function: we are lured to the heart of darkness by those very images which, larger than themselves, are glorious and ghastly revelations of Elizas soul made manifest, passionately to relive her extraordinary journey.
[ Claire Messuds most recent book, The Hunters: Two Short Novels, is published by Picador. The Pleasures of Eliza Lynch. By Anne Enright. Jonathan Cape, 240pp. £12.99 sterling ]