Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Green Road, by Anne Enright

The Green Road, the first of Enright’s novels that I have read, is a sort of collage of family life, with the wholesome green of Ireland crumbling at the edges, showing the usual staple characters of the dysfunctional Irish family. The drunk. The Priest. The ‘we all know he’s gay but let’s never speak of it’ one. The one that made a load of money in ways that nobody quite understands. The frump. The Mammy.  All with their own dramas and struggles going on, their own lives to lead. There is no single narrator; instead the third-person narrative switches between the five surviving members of the Madigan clan.

The plot follows the lives of Mammy matriarch Rosaleen and her two sons and two daughters; Dan, Emmet, Hanna and Constance. Similar to Anne Tyler’s 2015 offering A Spool of Blue Thread, the plot centres on a reunion, in this case Christmas, the first Christmas with everyone together for years, in the old family home before it is sold off.

We start with a school aged Hanna, smelling the Irish Farm on her father when he comes in from the field. There’s something about a Chemist’s in this part too- it’s all quite rose tinted and vague. Next up is Dan. The would-be Priest whose career plans drove his dramatic mother to her bed, wailing, for days at a time. Only he’s not a priest- it’s 1995 and he’s five years deep in the New York art scene, gently in denial of his homosexuality, hooking up with various men during the AIDS crisis. The gay community are dropping like flies and there’s something tragic and nostalgic about it all. I think Dan’s was my favourite chapter- the section follows him and his world, but weirdly enough he’s not in it a great deal. Discussed, but not always present. Next is Constance, the frumpy, possibly cancerous mother of three teenagers, undergoing a mammogram. She’s the only sibling to have stayed in her home town. Last amongst the siblings to take their turn is Emmet, a somewhat prickly character out in the Missions in Mali. His story centres, oddly, around his live in girlfriend, also a missionary, and her somewhat culturally confusing decision to adopt a street dog.

Hanna gets another go somewhere; we discover that she is unhappily married, a new mother and something of a heavy drinker. Next we jump through time, the children that have been scattered across the globe are back, with their mother, in the family home. It could be any family really. Squabbles, little digs about the fact that nobody actually likes Brussel sprouts. The “moist” turkey comments. The person who spent the day slaving over the Christmas diner left feeling under-appreciated and slightly resentful about it all. There are various teenagers present too, peripheral characters that don’t get much colour- just a few lines here and there. The present section focuses greatly on Rosalind, who is fascinating and deeply unpleasant. She’s catty and resentful, constantly trying to open old wounds and make her children feel guilty. Guilty for leaving? Guilty for being young? Guilty for having their own lives? I’m not sure- but she seems as confused and pained by her own behaviour as her kids to. Her victimisation of Constance in particular, the daughter who stayed, is quite hard to read.

I really liked how strong the theme of ‘home’ was in this novel; the home that is forever lost that you can never stop looking for. It’s this really that powers the whole plot, the actions of the characters. It’s Rosalind’s decision, apparently on a whim, to sell up that drives her children’s feet back home one last time.

Personally, I don’t really know what to make of this novel- it’s not something I would usually read, which is the great thing about the Bailey’s Prize. It was an enjoyable read, not thematically or historically complicated, not melodramatic- but the characters were its strength- none were particularly likable, which is always quite a bold move. They were occasionally selfish and self-absorbed, occasionally dramatic and spiteful. Rosalind seemed thoroughly disinterested in any of her grandchildren, which was quite odd…It’s full of very impressive prose and insightful observations. Enright conjures a very modern, very believable family of infighting and bitterness- siblings who miss each other from across the world but squabble in the same room. I'm not sure if it will win- it doesn't feel as vital or as innovative as some of the other titles.

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