This is only the second Anne Enright novel that I have read, The Gathering Enright’s 2007 Booker winning novel is I believe something of a modern classic. With this novel we find ourselves in fairly familiar territory – a family drama, like those we perhaps expect of certain Irish writers. For me that is a big plus point – I love that Irish tradition, and The Green Road is a wonderful novel.
“Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.”
Like The Gathering, The Green Road centres on a family at a time of crisis. The Madigan family are presided over by Rosaleen, a widow, in a small town in West Clare. When Rosaleen decides it is time to sell the family home, her adult children, each living lives very different to one another, rush back to the family home for one last Christmas. Before the novel reaches this point of potential change, we meet each member of the Madigan family, dropping into their lives in New York, Africa or Dublin. I enjoyed this third person perspective, switching as it does between the five members of the Madigan family over a period of more than twenty years. Each of these narratives are almost like linked short stories – in which we travel to a new place and meet new people, each of them glancing over their shoulder to the Ireland of their childhood. Life takes the Madigan siblings Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna to various places, giving them all different challenges, home generally feels like a very long way away. Enright’s sense of place is fabulous, her relationship with the land she writes about is easy to see.
“Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.”
The perspective as the novel opens is that of Hanna, the youngest member of the family, fourteen in 1980. She collects the mysterious medicine for her grandmother, and witnesses the drama that is unleased when Dan announces he is going to be a priest. Rosaleen sobs over the dinner – taking to her bed at the news. So far the story is certainly of that familiar kind, a small community where church and family are everything, where many people stay their whole lives, and others flee as soon as they are able.
The second chapter moves forward eleven years. The gay community of New York city, in the early 1990s, where many young men have already had to watch their friends and lovers die of the AIDS epidemic. Dan (who never did become a priest) is drawn, almost despite himself, into this world. A world of casual sex, fear of dying, hospital rooms a world where you take pleasure where you can, and try not to look too far ahead. Dan is engaged to his teenage sweetheart, not that, that stops him spending more and more time with Billy and his friends while she is away. I found this section of the novel to be utterly brilliant, Enright captures the atmosphere of this community beautifully, the portraits of these young men almost unbearably poignant.
“Billy knew that, even if he did not love Greg, even if he had other guys, and other plans for the long term, he would still do this thing. He would help Greg in his last months, or years. And he might resent it but he would not regret it: because this was the thing that was given him to do.”
Later in the novel we meet Dan again, years later, in Toronto – living with another man, unsure whether he wants to commit, finally to one person.
We then catch up with Emmett, working for a charity in Segou, Mali, living with fellow aid worker, and his current girlfriend Alice. A stray dog unexpectedly puts their relationship under pressure. When we next meet Emmett a few years later, he is living in Dublin, sometimes remembers Alice and when contemplating the coming Christmas feels he can’t ask his lonely housemate to join his family for the season, thinking…
“I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad”
Meanwhile Constance stayed close to home, married, had three children. Overweight and with some health problems, she’s the one who sees Rosaleen the most, sometimes irritated by her, sometimes irritating her. Her husband is a builder and property developer, and now Constance can enjoy driving around in a very nice car.
The youngest sibling, Hanna – as the stories of the Madigan family bring us up to the present – is the one who seems to be most troubled. A new mother, trapped in what seems to be a dysfunctional relationship, she has turned to drink.
Rosaleen; difficult combative and wonderfully drawn by Enright, looks back on her life as a wife and mother, a time when life was busy and she was fulfilled, but now in the long dark evenings of an Irish winter she can’t tell what time it is. The family come together again, and in the midst of a family Christmas there is an unexpected moment of crisis. Enright is brilliant in recreating the politics of family; the misunderstandings, things unsaid, the peculiarly unique relationship that exists between siblings.
I have seen a real mixed bag of reviews of The Green Road, many glowing some rather lukewarm. I absolutely loved it, and I will be reading more Enright, who I have so far, rather shockingly neglected.