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June 7, 2015

The Green Road by Anne Enright

the-green-roadI’m not quite sure what to do with The Green Road, by Anne Enright. Enright, recently appointed Ireland’s first Fiction Laureate, a literary force whose new books are events, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2007’s The Gathering. I read The Gathering after the award, I think, and I remember finding it very difficult, and no longer remember anything about it. Her following novel, The Forgotten Waltz, was more my speed, more of a straightforward narrative, though critics found it underwhelming. I loved her memoir, Making Babies, which I’ve read at least twice, a book that displays her wry, slightly-off perspective, and her mastery of language. Oh, how Enright can line up words in a sentence, evoke a simile: the effect of “He did have sex with a guy on Saturday night but coming made him feel like he was reaching for something that melted in his hands.” (from The Green Road). Last winter I read her second novel, What Are You Like? from 2000, and found myself spellbound but frustrated by the fragmentation. Sometimes I feel as though fragments emerge from an author who couldn’t quite be bothered to write a “real” book, but then the pieces all came together at the end and I was dazzled all the same.

I wasn’t so dazzled by The Green Road, which is also a novel in pieces, or at least I wasn’t dazzled by how the pieces finally came together because they didn’t really. But then the pieces themselves were really stunning, and it’s remarkable too how Enright portrays 25 years of a family’s history through a few chosen episodes most of which don’t even show characters interacting with other family members. We begin with Hanna, the youngest daughter in 1980, witnessing her formidable mother’s histrionics at her eldest brother’s decision to join the priesthood. Next it’s 1991 in New York City, and the brother has foregone religion for an vibrant life in the city’s gay scene against the backdrop of AIDS. 1997 and sister Constance is awaiting confirmation of whether or not the lump in her breast is cancerous, the entire section enacted in the events of a single morning. Then 2002 and brother Emmet is doing international development work in Mali, negotiating his own perilous domestic arrangement with a fellow aid worker. And finally, their mother, Rosaleen, sitting down to her Christmas Cards in 2005 and contemplating her children so far dispersed emotionally and by geography. She’s selling the house, she decides, a surprising decree that brings everyone home for the first time in years.

Each of these pieces stand alone as a masterful short story. Stylistically innovative too—in particular the first-person plural narration of Dan’s section. They are challenging, stories that begin in the middle of the action, or afterwards, taking a long time to circle back around to it, demanding much of their reader’s attention. If you try to skim prose like this, you’re going to get lost. They also serve well as a shorthand of the family’s place in time through small details, even if the character’s family life is at the far periphery of their experience. And that the family life is at the far periphery of experience is kind of the point of the entire book, their demanding mother both the cause of and reacting to the fact that her offspring are so far-flung. So what happens when the fractured family all return again under one roof?

There is drinking, of course. Enright has done a fantastic job rendering the postpartum experiences of struggling actress Hanna whose been hiding booze in her juice, and is dangerously unstable. Everyone gets sloshed, except put-upon Constance who magics up Christmas dinner (but forgets to buy the coffee) and then after the inevitable explosion when their mother takes off, no one is sober enough to go driving and look for her. And here the novel takes a dramatic turn, a bit Hagar Shipley/Our Woman from Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, the embittered and deranged mother figure getting lost in the landscape, falling off the edge of things. (The kind of woman who thunders around screaming, “Don’t mind me!” at the night sky.)

It is this difficult woman who is the book’s compelling centre, but never quite comes into focus. This is also partly the point—the characters contemplate the impossibility of really describing one’s mother. She is just your mother—a primal knowledge, but also one beyond understanding. The hole at the centre of the novel gets at this contradiction, but it’s also a weakness of the book, I think. And while it’s emblematic that the pieces of the narrative fail to culminate into anything approaching resolution, the reader is still looking for more of a pay-off.

Though it’s there if you look for it. In Enright’s exquisite prose, the illumination of perfect moments throughout the text (even if they are more like beads on a string than links on a chain), in what Lisa Moore describes as Enright’s “distinctive voice. Captivating, wry, tart, wickedly funny – ineffable, ineluctable.” So in the end, I do know what to do with Anne Enright, which is just to read her, read everything, and then go back and read The Gathering again.

2 thoughts on “The Green Road by Anne Enright”

  1. theresa says:

    I picked up my (ordered) copy of The Green Road today and look forward to it. She is always kind of provocative — I think of The Forgotten Waltz and its strange ecology; also The Gathering and that whole strangely compelling family dynamic. So although I find the novels awkwardly constructed sometimes, I’ll always read them avidly. She’s never mawkish or falsely optimistic (yet there is hope, I think, in her work).

    1. Kerry says:

      You’re exactly right, Theresa! I love a writer I can trust like that, even when they challenge me.

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