‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright

The-Green-Road

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 310 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road has been long listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. This is the Irish writer’s  sixth novel, but only the third one of hers I’ve read.

The first one I read, The Gathering, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize and, perhaps somewhat unfairly, gave her a reputation for writing rather grim literary fiction, particularly as it looked at the outfall of sexual abuse on a family. The second book, The Forgotten Waltz, was slightly more accessible, but it still explored dark territory —  that of an extramarital affair as told by the “other woman”.

But this new novel treads totally different territory. It’s not exactly light-hearted but there are elements of black comedy in it, which make it a fun read as opposed to a depressing one.

Family life

The Green Road is essentially a forthright family drama following the lives of four siblings — Hanna,  Emmet, Dan and Constance — and their needy, domineering mother, Rosaleen, over the course of 25 years. Each character gets their own section, beginning when Hanna, the youngest child, is just 12 years old, and culminates with all of the siblings  returning to their childhood home as adults for a Christmas dinner in 2005 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.

The novel highlights the differences between each of the siblings and the ways in which they all grow apart as they get older and pursue their own lives and careers so that they effectively become strangers — and yet as soon as they’re thrown together for a Christmas celebration all the old tensions, resentments and childhood dynamics come to the fore, almost as if they never moved out of the family home.

Enright takes her time fleshing out all of the characters — most of whom we meet as adults— each of whom is grappling with private difficulties: Dan, who once wanted to be a priest, has reinvented himself as an artist in New York but is living a double life during the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s; Emmet, an aid worker in Africa, has rejected the materialism of the modern world but finds it hard to make meaningful connections with women; Constance, raising her own family in Ireland, has a health scare that she keeps to herself; and Hanna, a first-time mother and struggling actor in Dublin, has an ongoing problem with alcohol.

But it is the central character, Rosaleen, that lends the book its gravitas — and humour.  This Irish mammy is manipulative, self-absorbed, living “her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people” and vacillating between “a state of hope or regret”:

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. Even though nothing happened – she saw to that too. Nothing was discussed. The news was boring or it was alarming, facts were always irrelevant, politics rude. Local gossip, that is what his mother allowed, and only of a particular kind. Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road. Her own ailments of course, other people’s diseases. Mrs Finnerty’s cousin’s tumour that turned out to be just a cyst. Her back, her hip, her headaches, and the occasional flashing light when she closed her eyes – ailments that were ever more vague, until, one day, they would not be vague at all. They would be, at the last, entirely clear.

Evocative writing

As ever, Enright’s writing is sharp and lucid and full of beautiful phrases and descriptions. I especially loved her depiction of the Green Road from whence the novel takes its name:

This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – the rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare. And if you lifted your eyes from the difficulties of the path, it was always different again, the islands sleeping out in the bay, the clouds running their shadows across the water, the Atlantic surging up the distant cliffs in a tranced, silent plume of spray. Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.

And her ability to dissect family life in all its madness and joy is truly wonderful. Somehow she’s able to show exactly what it is like to be a parent, a child, a sibling, a lover and a spouse, whether male or female, and how the “pull” of home never truly leaves us, even if we move countries or continents.

It’s also an interesting look at how our world view and attitudes are shaped by our travels. In this case, Rosaleen, who has never left Ireland, is parochial in outlook, while most of her children, who have had to move away to find work (and love), tend to be more open-minded and “educated”.

But for all the novel’s strengths, I found the structure somewhat let it down. Each character’s story is told in self-contained sections, rather than employing interwoven narrative threads, so it almost feels as if you are reading a collection of short stories. The final part, which brings all the children back home to Ireland for Christmas, feels slightly more novelistic and acts as a nice counterbalance, but overall I found that the whole wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts.

Yes, The Green Road is a more gentle, forgiving, entertaining and accessible novel than Enright’s previous efforts, but whether it impresses the judges enough to make the Man Booker shortlist remains to be seen.

Anne-Enright-signed-copy

As an aside, I saw the author do a reading at Foyles flagship store here in London on 7 May. She was down-to-earth, forthright and funny — adjectives that could also be used to describe the book.

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26 thoughts on “‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright

  1. I just read a novel by a Kiwi author that’s structured a bit like this. IT’s good in a way, because you get all the different narrative voices, but it means you can lose track of what’s going on too.

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    • Well, there’s never any fear of losing track of what’s going on here — you know it’s all building up to something. I think my problem with the structure was that it was too easy to prefer some chapters/stories/characters over others — for instance, I loved Dan’s bit, but was less enamoured of Emmet’s story.

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  2. This was the first Enright novel I’ve read and I enjoyed her style for sure, there were moments which completely invaded me whilst others didn’t hit the right note – I was pleased though, as I had no preconceptions – I’d personally quite like it shortlisted as of the Booker novels I’ve read so far it’s in the top three for sure.

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    • I suspect this is a rather good introduction to her work, Beth. It’s certainly less oppressive than The Gathering, which I remember as relentlessly dark. Interesting that you’d like to see it on the shortlist. What other books from the long list have you read? I’ve only read The Spool of Blue Thread, which I loved, and which, funnily enough, isn’t that dissimilar to The Green Road, seeing as it is about a family and the complicated relationships between siblings.

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      • I am interested in The Gathering now although I’m not sure how soon I’ll get to it. I’ve read The Spool of Blue Thread which I didn’t like at all, I felt quite disappointed that I didn’t get it but I definitely didn’t get it but I did feel the similarities to this one. I’d also read Lila beforehand, which once again I didn’t get on with and A Brief History of Seven Killings which I really loved, although it is simply massive and there are so many characters. I’ve since read The Fishermen which didn’t wow me but I appreciated how it stands out as different from the others on the list and I enjoyed elements of Obioma’s style and finally I’ve read A Little Life which, like many others, I rate as one of the most important things I’ve read in a long time. Whether I read any more of them remains to be seen but I think not at the moment :). Of the ones I’ve read only Enright, James and Yanagihara are on my shortlist wish list.

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  3. Like you, I have a real soft spot for Irish writing and I’m really looking forward to reading this when it comes out in paperback.

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    • Thanks, Poppy. It’s a brilliant family — such interesting characters — but Dan’s tale was my favourite. His story alone would be worthy of an entire novel. I guess it’s testament to Enright’s skill as a writer that she could have taken any one of these characters and structured a whole novel around them, but instead she’s put them all in the one book.

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  4. I really loved The Gathering I do think it’s a modern classic. I haven’t read any other Enright novels yet though I have The Forgotten Waltz waiting. I really like the sound of The Green Road even though it seems to differ from The Gathering.

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  5. Great review Kim. I’ve not read any of Enright’s work but she sounds a powerful writer – though I get what you say about the structure, because if the various threads aren’t drawn together enough the book won’t seem like a whole entity. I’ll look out for her books!

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  6. I’m so glad you’ve reviewed this book since I was hoping to look to you as a reference and an Irish lit lover when I lead a book club discussion on The Green Road later this month. I think I can generate a few questions from your contribution! This is my first Enright and so far so good! Thanks in advance!! I will give The Gathering a go later on.

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  7. I actually liked this one more than either ‘The Gathering’ (which I really disliked) or ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ (which, aptly, I’ve largely forgotten) but after three books I just don’t think Enright is an author for me (I do have a short story collection by her, so she may get one last chance). I really couldn’t fault the writing in ‘The Green Road’, but for me it ended up being little more than well-written soap opera. And the structure – moving from one character to another – highlighted her penchant for misery to the point that it became almost funny (and not in a way I think she’d intended): here’s the mother, she’s depressed; here’s son number one, all his friends have AIDS; here’s daughter number one, she might have cancer; here’s the youngest daughter, she’s an alcoholic… I was almost waiting for a character with leprosy or something to appear. I did really enjoy the first chapter and the last bit, at Christmas, though perhaps the soapiest element, was quite good. I actually find books like this (or Anne Tyler’s ‘Spool of Blue Thread’, which I preferred), about large grown-up families, intriguing, being myself an only child with a very small extended family, and I always wonder if they really work like this, where each child fills a stereotypical role: the responsible one who organises everything, the rebellious one, the gay one, the drunk one etc… it always seems a bit improbable that they can all be so dissimilar, but maybe it’s a way for each member to assert their individuality.

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    • Well, you’ve given her a good go, David. If you’ve read three and figure she’s not for you, then she’s not for you.

      As per big families, I can attest that yes, each person can be very very different, and siblings do fall into “categories” even if it feels like cliche.

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  8. Pingback: 10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2017 | Reading Matters

  9. Pingback: 2017 International Dublin Award Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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