So­lace, strife in the fam­ily zone

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Diane Stub­bings

If, as David Malouf ar­gues, the chief pur­pose of the novel is to dis­close the in­ner lives of its char­ac­ters, then Ir­ish writer Anne En­right is a mas­ter of the craft. The Gath­er­ing, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, is an ex­quis­ite piece of writ­ing, teas­ing open a fam­ily’s grief in a way that is both sharpedged and ten­der.

En­right’s 2011 novel The Forgotten Waltz (short­listed for the Or­ange Prize) ex­posed the heart of its hero­ine, Gina Moyni­han, as she em­barked on an adul­ter­ous af­fair. Raw and hon­est, this book, like The Gath­er­ing be­fore it, un­der­lined En­right’s ca­pac­ity to find within the fixed mo­ments of a life an in­fin­ity of mem­ory, of pur­pose, of ex­pe­ri­ence.

En­right ex­cels when she is writ­ing about fam­ily. Veron­ica He­garty, the nar­ra­tor of The Gath­er­ing, notes: “I don’t know what wound we are show­ing to them all, apart from the wound of fam­ily. Be­cause, just at this mo­ment, I find that be­ing a part of a fam­ily is the most ex­cru­ci­at­ing pos­si­ble way to be alive.” It’s this ten­sion be­tween the im­pos­si­bil­ity and ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity of fam­ily that un­der­pins the best of her work.

In her lat­est novel, The Green Road, the fam­ily with which En­right con­cerns her­self is the Madi­gans: mother Ros­aleen; chil­dren Dan, Con­stance, Em­met and Hanna; and Ros­aleen’s hus­band Pat, whose death is, in many ways, the weight that an­chors them all.

When we first meet the Madi­gans at their home in Ardeevin, on Ire­land’s west coast, the fam­ily is in an up­roar. It’s Easter 1980, and Dan has an­nounced he is join­ing the priest­hood. Ros­aleen has taken “the hor­i­zon­tal so­lu­tion”, con­fin­ing her­self to her bed­room, im­pos­ing on the house an “ur­gent and corpse­like” si­lence.

The chil­dren re­spond each in their own way: “Dan pulled a wry face as he went back to his The Green Road By Anne En­right Ran­dom House, 312pp, $32.99 book, Con­stance might make tea and Em­met would do some­thing very noble and pure — a sin­gle flower brought from the gar­den, a se­ri­ous kiss. Hanna would not know what to do ex­cept maybe go in and be loved.”

Thus, the pat­tern of their fu­tures is set down. No mat­ter their phys­i­cal dis­tance from Ros­aleen, no mat­ter the time they have spent away from her, they can­not shake their lives free of the fierce emo­tional bur­den of her: “This is what pushed [Em­met] from one coun­try to the next. This en­ergy. A woman who did noth­ing and ex­pected ev­ery­thing. She sat in this house, year af­ter year, and she ex­pected.”

A novel in two acts (Leav­ing and Com­ing Home), The Green Road piv­ots on an evening in 2005 (when Ire­land was in the thick of an un­prece­dented eco­nomic boom). Ros­aleen finds her­self sit­ting alone in a house that no longer fits — “It was as though she was wear­ing some­one else’s coat” — and she de­cides to sell the fam­ily home to de­vel­op­ers. The de­ci­sion serves as a dog whis­tle, call­ing her scat­tered chil­dren home.

At first glance, Ros­aleen bears all the hall­marks of a car­i­ca­ture, a stage-Ir­ish mother, al­ways keen­ing and con­trol­ling, her chil­dren obliged to dance a merry jig to please her. But En­right, al­ways a per­cep­tive ob­server of char­ac­ter, takes us deeper, re­veal­ing Ros­aleen as a madly pas­sion­ate woman who is strug­gling to un­der­stand where her life, and her love, have gone — an in­com­pre­hen­sion that man­i­fests it­self in the ma­nip­u­la­tion of her chil­dren.

The novel cul­mi­nates on Christ­mas evening in 2005, when Ros­aleen, hav­ing left the house in a grump, be­comes lost while walk­ing in the dark along the green road, “the road of her youth”. It’s here that she con­fronts her mem­o­ries of her hus­band Pat, the man who promised to wor­ship her and for whom she sac­ri­ficed wealth and sta­tus.

It was Pat who dubbed her his “Dark Ros­aleen”, evok­ing a fig­ure of an­cient Ir­ish love bal­lads, later ap­pro­pri­ated as a po­lit­i­cal sym­bol of Ire­land. And it’s this ghost of the Ir­ish na­tion drawing her chil­dren back — a long-es­tab­lished mo­tif in Ir­ish writ­ing — that haunts The Green Road, like a “re­flec­tion [in a] dark­en­ing win­dow”.

What this novel re­veals is the way the physi- cal, imag­i­na­tive and even emo­tional land­scape of a place can em­bed it­self into the bones of those born within it, ground­ing them and defin­ing them: “All at once, it was familiar. [Dan] knew this place. It was a se­cret he had car­ried in­side him; a map of things he had known and lost, th­ese half-glimpsed houses and stone walls, the fields of solid-green.”

When they fear their mother is lost to them, the Madigan chil­dren suf­fer “the sear­ing want” of her. In the months that fol­low her find­ing, they are again “ut­terly be­guiled” by her, but it is, En­right sug­gests, a tran­sient de­light.

Con­nec­tions to fam­ily, to place, to the past, may be op­pres­sive, but sev­er­ing those con­nec­tions brings its own com­pli­ca­tions, for with­out the past there is an in­com­plete­ness in our sense of who we are and who we might be­come. This

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