Thursday, May 21, 2015

Anne Enright’s ‘The Green Road’ is a brilliant, must-read novel of family relationships

This could be the shortest review I’ve ever written: “Anne Enright’s The Green Road is brilliant. Read it. The End.”

Rosaleen Considine Madigan is an elderly Irish widow with four children, “all contending in various ways with the emotional tyranny of their never-satisfied mother.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post, 5/5/15)

Enright clearly understands the push-pull of the relationship between aging parents and their adult offspring: the undercurrent of fear and need on the part of the parent; the children’s sense of duty as well as their need to live their own lives. This relationship is more fraught if the parent is, and has always been, manipulative, demanding, and critical.

Neither does Enright shy away from the physical and mental decline of the sick and dying. A little girl is asked to go to the pharmacy for a cream for her grandmother. She suspects it has something to do with
“the bright blood she saw in her granny’s commode,” and that “the cream was for something old-lady and horrible.” This author is compelling in describing the AIDs epidemic, disease and death in the Third World, as well as the mental and physical deterioration of aging.

[Unlike Rosaleen,] Enright herself does pay attention to everything – the good, the bad, the ugly, the utterly trivial – and sets it all down clearly without any fuss. She makes it look easy, but few writers achieve such high resolution, with everything in equal focus and no lapses into melodrama or sentimentality. The prose style admits flourish… But its star feature is a matter-of-fact tone that assumes, we’re all adults here. (Claire Lowdon, The Literary Review, 5/15)

The book is in two parts: ‘Leaving’ and ‘Coming Home.’ Each chapter in ‘Leaving’ is told from the point of view of Rosaleen or one of her children and each could stand alone as a powerful short story.

In the first, Hanna, still a child living at home in 1980, relates the night that her brother Dan announces that he is going to become a priest. Rosaleen moans, weeps and takes to her bed for two weeks. According to Dan, this is her “horizontal solution” to most problems.

After Rosaleen finally ventures out of her bedroom, she tells Hanna, “He is my son and I don’t like him, and he doesn’t like me either.” Hanna responds, “But you like me, Mammy,” to which Rosaleen shoots back, “I like you now.”

In the next chapter, it is 1991. Dan has left the seminary and followed his girlfriend, Isabelle, to New York where the AIDs epidemic is rampant. Still closeted, “Irish Dan” is having sex with men while planning to marry Isabelle (“the brave little wife-to-be.”) Friends are dying everywhere; names being penciled out of address books. “We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.”

Dan is called but doesn’t show up at the deathbed of the man who loves him: “After that, no one saw Dan for years. We did not blame him. At least, we tried not to blame him. These things are very hard.”

Constance, the responsible daughter, is living in County Limerick in 1997. It is boom time in Ireland and her husband, Dessie McGrath, and his brother are making money constructing houses. Constance is 37 with three children and in the midst of a cancer scare. She is also bearing the brunt of looking after Rosaleen, bringing groceries in, taking care of bills and details, and getting criticism, not thanks, for it.

She stops by with bags of supplies for her mother and, as she is leaving, Rosaleen calls after her:

And lose some of that weight,’ she said, after the door closed in her face…
She might have heard.
No matter. The woman was her daughter, she could say what she liked.

The fourth child, Emmet, is in Mali working for a relief organization. He is consumed with the horrors he has seen: poverty, hunger, filth, ignorance – “a dog carrying a woman’s arm in its mouth.” Emmet says of his mother:

You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare.

Rosaleen’s view:

All Emmet’s arguments were one long argument. Those babies that you saw on the TV, the women with long and empty breasts, their eyes empty to match, and Emmet’s own eyes full of fury. Not passion – Rosaleen would not call it passion. A kind of coldness there, like it was all her fault.

Later, she adds that Emmet “blamed her for everything”:

Because that is what your babies do, when they grow. They turn around and say it is all your fault. The fact that people die. It is all your fault.

Rosaleen herself was a Considine: people of substance in their little village. Her father owned Considine’s Medical Hall, now run by her brother. The Madigans, on the other hand, were “poor, stupid, dirty and poor.” Rosaleen had plenty of suitors but chose to “marry down” for love. Of Patrick Madigan, it is said:

Handsome he might be and tall, but the bit of land he had was only rock and he did his business behind a hedge, like the rest of the Madigans before him.

Now, it is 2005, Pat Madigan is dead, and Rosaleen summons her children home. She has decided, almost on a whim, to sell the house in which they grew up.

In Part II of the novel, Dan is no longer with Isabelle but, rather, is living in Toronto with a wealthy man who has proposed marriage. Hanna is an actress living in Dublin, has borne a child with her boyfriend and is drinking rather too much. Emmet is also in Dublin, living with a young Dutch woman and an African man, and longing to get back in the field. Constance, of course, is buying and cooking all the food for the family gathering, running to the airport, handling the details.

The homecoming is as awkward as could be expected. Rosaleen is at her self-pitying, manipulative worst, ranting about the “ungrateful children I raised”:  “Whatever I did – whatever it was – it was not enough. Clearly. That’s all. I just don’t know.”

She announces that she is selling the house and moving in with Constance – the first Constance and Dessie have heard of this plan. Constance finally gathers herself up:

“You can’t come,” she said.
“It’s not fair. You can’t come. You can’t live in my house.”
“I can do what I like,” said Rosaleen.
“No, you can’t. You just can’t. There’s about seventy little houses getting built around here, you can have one of them. You would love it. Everything new and clean. You can have your own little house.”
“You’re not going to put me out on the roads,” said Rosaleen and Constance lowered her head.
“I just mean,” she said.
“Your own mother!”

Rosaleen walks out, alone, in the dark and the December cold, on the Green Road which runs across the burren. In a particularly powerful scene, she shouts out her feelings as she marches along. She remembers all the places along the road she and Patrick went and all the stories he told her when they were courting. She gets lost and collapses but imagines his voice urging her on.

When she does not return home, a massive search is organized and she is found huddled in an abandoned cottage to which she has crawled on hands and knees. Afterward:

She looked on her children as though we were a wonder to her, and indeed we were a bit of a wonder to ourselves. We had been, for those hours on the dark mountainside, a force. A family.

Anne Enright has published three columns of stories, one book of nonfiction, and five novels. Her novel, The Gathering, won the Man Booker Prize and The Forgotten Waltz won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In 2015, she was named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.

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