Anne Enright, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘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.

Acorn Digital Press, Africa, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Ros Wynne-Jones, Setting

‘Something Is Going to Fall Like Rain’ by Ros Wynne-Jones

Something-is-going-to-fall-like-rain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Acorn Digital Press; 250 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the author.

“El Niño caused the drought, but human beings caused the famine,” admits one of the aid workers very early on in this story, which is, by turns, inspiring, terrifying, heart-hammering and desperately sad. First published in 2009 and recently re-released in a Kindle edition, Something is Going to Fall Like Rain is set in southern Sudan some 10 years before it acquired independence.

An African adventure

The story is told from the point-of-view of a female aid worker, Maria Marshall, a trainee doctor from London, who is grieving over the death of her single parent mother.

Not long after Maria arrives in the remote village of Adek, in war-torn southern Sudan, and meets her two colleagues — Billy, from the US, and Sean, from Northern Ireland — than the local airfield is bombed. This means all three aid workers are now trapped, because the roads are too treacherous for travel, and a news blackout is put in place in case the story should “attract the attention of Government militias interested in Western hostage taking”.

Now that she no longer has the option to return home, Maria must adapt to a new way of life and confront the reality of famine and sickness, “where everyone has lost someone. Fathers and brothers to the war, daughters to famine and childbirth, mothers to rape and sickness, children to bombs”.

We stayed put and the food drops came down from the sky, a beacon attracting many more thousands of people from across Bahr el Ghazal and up into the neighbouring province of Darfur, drawing like a magnet any family capable of walking. New arrivals told us thousands more people – the sick, the very  youngest and the elderly – were being buried daily by their surviving relatives in dusty graves across the plains towards Adek or left marooned in flooded villages facing certain famine and death. Arriving in Adek meant at least a fragile chance of life, however desperately short we were of food. But it also made the village even more vulnerable than before – a sitting duck target for militia attack or Government bombings. “It’s a cat and mouse game now,” Billy said.

Maria makes friends with many of the village residents, including a young boy who has been severely crippled by polio and the Chief who wanders around in a woman’s dressing gown unaware of how ridiculous he looks, and learns about the Dinka way of life. And all the while she works around the clock helping to distribute basic food aid to the thousands of famine victims who flock to the camp.

Hints of a lucky escape

For much of the story, it feels like nothing much happens, but because the narrative is being told  retrospectively by Maria ten years later, we get hints of something terrible occurring. It is these small nuggets  of information interspersed through Maria’s chronological account of hertime in Adek that keeps the reader  turning the pages. What happened when she was there? And how did she return to the UK?

I admit to myself for perhaps the first time, that the malaria is not the only recurring  damage from Southern Sudan. That a decade ago a part of me died in Adek’s marketplace. That my label of ‘survivor’ is not the whole story because not all of me survived. After Sudan, something closed off hard inside me, suddenly and painfully, as if a part of my inner self had been cauterised without anaesthetic, irreparably and violently damaged. Something burned and blackened began lurking in the corners of my imagination, a wounded minotaur stalking the bloodied chambers of my heart and mind.

An authentic tale

The best thing about Something is Going to Fall Like Rain is that it feels authentic. That’s probably because Wynne-Jones is an award-winning journalist who has worked in conflict zones around the world — from South Sudan to East Timor, Kosovo to Rwanda — and I suspect much of it is based on first-hand experience.

She is able to bring Africa and her people to life, and she can also write searingly good sentences, too:

The empty glass Ark stood grounded on dry land, sitting astride its own Godless in-land Ararat. Above the noise of the traffic, it seemed to me I could actually hear the sky-scrapers scraping the grey sky.

But occasionally the prose feels a bit forced when background information on the political situation is being explained — usually via extended pieces of dialogue — and I would have liked to have known more about Sean and Billy, both of whom seemed slightly two dimensional. But these are minor quibbles.

This is an excellent read, harrowing in places, heartwarming in others. And as a debut novel it is confident and self-assured. If you liked Andrea Eames’ The White Shadow, Chris Abani’s Song for Night and Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, then add this one to your list, because it is of a similar heart-rending ilk.