By the end of the first chapter of Anne Enright’s story of strife within an the Madigan family, I had the sense it wasn’t the Green Road I was following, but an all too familiar path. Some of the tropes of Irish fiction had already made their appearance:
Child destined for the convent (or in this case the priesthood). The romance of the land. Churchgoing. Conflict between branches of the same family (they ‘don’t get on with each other’ for reasons that may or may not be revealed); Small community setting with old fashioned shops. More churchgoing.
I steeled myself for more. But then thought maybe I was being unfair. It’s not possible to write a serious novel set in west coast Eire and not mention the church is it? And while the Celtic Tiger did transform the Irish economy for a few years, in 1980 which is when the novel begins, much of Southern Ireland was (actually still is) comprised of small, very tightly knit villages and towns that look pretty much as they did in the 1950s.
And then, with Chapter 2, Anne Enright sprung a surprise. Her narrative leapt 11 years, out of conservative Irish town where birth control is not easily obtained, and into the free-wheeling world of New York with its gay sub culture. This was the first, and by the far the most rivetting, of four sections each devoted to the five living members of the Madigan clan: the demanding, infuriating matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna.
Dan Madigan never got ordained (for reasons which are never explained in the novel) but has morphed into Irish Dan. He cuts a handsome figure as he manoeuvres deftly, though cruelly, through the charged atmosphere of the Aids epidemic. Forward another six years and we catch up with his sister Constance, driving along the green road to a secret hospital appointment, hoping her mammogram will prove all-clear. She’s the only child to remain in her home town, growing fat and resentful when her mother dismisses her gestures of kindness. Youngest son Emmet has put the greatest distance possible between him and Ireland, drifting through Africa on a mission to help starving children in Africa but struggling to reconcile this with his personal relationships. And then there is Hanna, the lively 12 year old child from Chapter 1 whose life disintegrates as her ambitions of an acting career collapses and she takes refuge in booze.
These sections, which take us up to 2005, are in essence a series of loosely connected short stories, each having a distinctly different atmosphere and voice. The parts dealing with Dan in New York are the most powerful, superbly conjuring up the way different groups responded to Aids; some distancing themselves immediately they saw anyone on the subway with tell-tale purple bruises; others reaching out to those they knew were dying. But the victims themselves had different needs, as the narrator explains:
We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.
Enright brings the family back together with a device which has parallels with King Lear’s division of his kingdom (and we all know how that went). Rosalyn summons the children for Christmas, telling them it will be the last in their family home since she intends selling and moving in with Constance (much to her daughter’s surprise and alarm). The declaration has the family members embark on mega supermarket shopping expeditions (Constance), a long flight (Dan) or a lot minute attempt at packing by throwing stuff into bags (Emmet) before settling around the dinner table, each in the same place they had occupied as children. Though they have changed, one thing remains the same; Rosalyn’s ability to cause an upset. Tears arrive well before bedtime. Enright brings the reunion to a climax with an action which forces the children to reconsider their attitudes towards their mother. By the end they are a little wiser, but it didn’t feel they were substantially different people or that their lives had altered in any material way.
Were my fears about this book realised? To some extent yes. The family scenes in Ireland were never as interesting as those where each child, battered by life and directionless, is allowed to tell their own story. And I do wish Enright hadn’t tried to bring the novel to resolution by the unnecessary device of making one character disappear. But I did enjoy her characterisation of Rosaleen, a woman much given to bewailing her fate, succumbing to imaginary illnesses and seeing the world ranged against her. Enright enables us to laugh at this woman who takes zero interest in world affairs but loves good local gossip. “Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road.” She’s manipulative and waspish but she loves her children. She just doesn’t know how to show it.
A reasonably good read in short but nothing remarkable. I had very similar feeling by the end that Rosaleen expresses about her life:
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.
The Green Road wouldn’t make it to the Booker shortlist if I were one of the judges.