Emily Dickinson set a high standard for recognizing a great literary work. “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Something cranial but a bit less drastic occurred to me when reading Irish novelist, Anne Enright’s recent book, The Green Road. My head did not lose its top; rather it seemed to be displaced, removed into a way of thinking different from mine – disconcertingly different. The novel introduces us to the Madigan family, an Irish matriarchy ruled by Rosaleen who responds to the trauma she engenders by resorting, as her son Daniel terms it, to “the horizontal solution.” She takes to her bed, disappears from family life for days, only to explode from her chamber in rages that dwindle to fondling expiation. This tactic develops in multiple ways, appearing in manifestations that challenge her rare set of children. Here is the elder daughter, Constance, now a mother of three, waiting for the results of a mammogram. What mark has maternity left on her?
She was back on the road at Bunratty, cutting thought the field - the impossible ease of it – and she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time. Donal, with a grumpy look on him, Shauna who came out in a blaze of red hair, and her sweet-natured middle son, Rory, who turned his mother into a bit of dual carriageway herself, at the last with such a bad tear. He took both exits, as she said to Dessie [her husband] at the same time.
The prose mimics the free flow of thought without resorting to stream of consciousness techniques. Enright’s ability to project distinct voices and the habits of mind is enviable.
The novel’s structure is one of chronological growth of the Madigans. We have an opening chapter that introduces the family, and then we follow the lives of Rosaleen and Pat and their children, in discrete chapters, over a period of thirty years. The novel jolts its way to an end with the Madigans various converging on the family home for a last Christmas dinner. Rosaleen, now a widow, intends to sell the site of so many family crises.The children gather with a sense of foreboding: what new confrontations await?
There are precedents for set-piece disastrous Christmas dinners (I think of the row in Joyce’s The Portrait) but few can match Enright’s tragi-comic battle. The extraordinary aspect of the scene is that is it followed by Rosaleen’s monologue, as she wanders outside in the dark, humiliated by her own incapacity not to be herself.
The sea was huge for her. The light gentle and great. The fields indifferent as she walked up the last of the hill. But she got a slightly sarcastic feel off the ditches, there was no other word for it – sprinkles of derision – like the countryside was laughing at her. Presences.
Enright gives her a fluid, poetic sensibility in retracing the place of her courtship and all that went into the making of the children who she thinks now despise her. It is beautifully lyrical section, and a great corrective to the development of the character who has so “shadowed” her children.
The idiosyncrasies of each Madigan offspring come across in chapters devoted to their lives in New York, Africa, or in Ireland. Dan survives the AIDS riddled gay world of New York in the ninties. Emmet works for an aid organization in Mali where his efforts are met with the inertia of all too fallible a government and an intractable climate. His relationship with a fellow NGO worker, Alice, only heightens his sense of an inability to love. And this is embodied through a surrogate child – an adopted stray dog. Constance, the eldest, falls into matronly success, marrying a developer who takes her into middle class luxury. Yet she is deeply ruminative, wondering about herself, her relationships with her children and her husband – and of course, with Rosaleen. Mother’s demands lie across her life. Hanna, a functioning alcoholic, has an abortive career as an actress, a fraught relationship with the set-designer father of her child, and a stunning accuracy in timing her inebriation to push conflict to crisis.
Yet this is a book a great distance from farce. In a concluding turn of events, Rosaleen, adrift and moving from one child’s home to another, begs shelter from Emmet. But to do this she has to accommodate Denholm, Emmet’s African roommate. The most guarded of racists, Rosaleen examines, absentmindedly, the white palm of Denholm’s hand. She admits with a candor that resonates through the years of her life: “Why have I not seen it before?”
Characteristic of the novel is its brilliant use of physical detail – the pharmacy owned by an uncle, the interior of a Lexus, the unroofed corner of a dilapidated Famine Cottage, the voluminous covers of the parents’ bed. Life is lived here with abrasive grittiness. Anne Enright rubs us up against people that irritate us into attention.