Jonathan Cape London
There are points in peoples’ lives that define their characters completely. Not major events like births, weddings, battles, temporary enlightenment at the base camp of Everest, but junctures that probably seem incongruous at the time. They may be few, they may be many, depending on how low one wears one’s heart on one’s sleeve and in conjunction with others’ experiences they may define two, three people even an entire family. Anne Enright’s beautiful, complicated novel The Green Road explores the Madigan clan of County Clare; who they are, why they are and how they came to be.
Four siblings unite after years apart on a typical Irish Christmas. Youngest sister Hanna is struggling with her acting career floundering, a new baby and an increasingly unhealthy relationship with petrol station white wine, the eldest Constance has an almost grown up family and is becoming ever more resentful of her status as ‘the one who stayed at home’ and middle brothers Dan and Emmet find themselves distant, and their familiar yet changed childhood environment difficult, while they’re far from their adopted homes. Mother Kathleen is always on the periphery, a kindness here, more often a passive-aggressive comment there, a mysteriousness that none could ever quite put their finger on growing up. An inscrutable nature that in the end none of them failed to inherit.
Family is, in that great Irish tradition, the backbone of the story. It’s Enright’s wry, nuanced, intensely accurate attention to detail that cuts through the cliché and endeavours to shine a light on how the unit you were born in to can make or break you. The Irish Mammy trope that has been in fond supply for years now, faced by Brenda Fricker’s character in My Left Foot on the popular Twitter account run by comedian Colm O’Regan and further supplemented by Sky TV’s show Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mammy, in which Baz Ashmawy coerces his God-fearing mother into participating in any number of extreme sports, makes affectionate fun of the traditional mother who lives in fear of leaving the immersion on and won’t let you leave the table until every last bit of over-cooked Spaghetti Bolognaise with potatoes on the side has been finished. Kathleen Madigan, matriarch and tyrant, has elements of the typical character, but thanks to Enright’s knack for giving great depth and dimension to her characters is much more than that.
Having married ‘down’ – her father was a respected chemist, her husband’s family’s farm is more or less situated on a large slab of rock, she married for love but resents her lowered status. Highly strung with a tendency to “sequester” herself, as her children put it, when things don’t go how she’d like them to go, Emmet in later years suggests she’s bi-polar, a diagnosis dismissed by his siblings as too simple an explanation for her. Difficult yet loving, callous but kind, this Irish mammy is one whose every move is monitored and absorbed sometimes with rolling eyes, more often subconsciously, by her children.
There are two parts to the story, part one which follows each Madigan child at a pivotal point in their lives over the course of 25 years, giving great scope for displaying Enright’s highly readable, relatable style, and part two bringing them all together again for a Christmas season laden with high levels of emotion and barely hidden suspicion, resentment and begrudgery lying beside latent sibling camaraderie and a childishness that only occurs in grown-up children returning to their childhood home.
Constance, the eldest, is naturally in charge of airport collection, in a pre-Recession top-of-the-range car made possible by her husband’s thriving building business, shopping, preparation of the dinner and all the other yuletide responsibilities. Her story is the most ordinary perhaps, but is also one with the most truthful depth. A trip to the shopping centre is portrayed in glorious detail, from a sense of pride in being able to comfortably afford a €400 bill, to cooing at a baby in the queue, to a near meltdown when she realises she’s forgotten the Brussel’s sprouts, the repugnant veg only her demanding mother requires. A dark humour is applied to the everyday struggles of the Madigan children, supplemented by an authoritative understanding of their plight.
In this emerald isle of ours we have a lot of good writers and a handful of great ones. Anne Enright falls into the latter category; her Man Booker Prize win and Laureate for Irish Fiction status notwithstanding. The Green Road is a deeply satisfying read that will leave you yearning for more of her stark, sardonic storytelling.
Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 02 September 2015