Solace, strife in the family zone
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