Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes a novel just strikes the right mood. You pick it up, start reading and become so immersed in the story you lose all sense of time. Before you know it, you’ve read half the book — or at least made substantial inroads.

This is how I felt when I read Anne Tyler’s latest novel, French Braid.

I am a long-time Anne Tyler fan so it’s no surprise I would like this book, but I reckon it’s the best one she’s written since 1982’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my favourite Tyler novel. That’s probably because it shares similar traits in terms of its focus on a dysfunctional family and the way chance events shape people’s lives and how sibling relationships are dictated by power dynamics beyond their control.

One family’s story

French Braid charts the history of the Garrett family over several decades — from 1959 through to 2020 — and features all the quintessential trademarks of Tyler’s work: a tapestry of complex family dynamics, a cast of quirky but believable characters, and a Baltimore setting.

There’s no real plot; the character-driven narrative moves ahead in roughly ten-year increments and each chapter is written (in the third person) from the perspective of a particular family member. This allows the reader to get to know the family relatively well, to understand the events that have shaped each person and given rise to certain misunderstandings or lessons or viewpoints.

We witness children growing older, moving out of home, finding partners of their own and having children. The passing of time is marked by graduations, family gatherings, weddings and celebratory dinners and occasions.

It is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

A family holiday sets the tone

The family is centred around Robin and Mercy, who get married in 1940, and their children Alice, Lily and David, whose ties and loyalties are tested and divided as they grow up to become adults with lives and families of their own.

A rare family holiday in 1959, when the girls are teens and David is a seven-year-old, underpins the entire family history and sets the tone for everything that follows. What unfolds on that lake in Maryland has long-lasting repercussions. David, in particular, is scarred by Robin’s heavy-handed attempts to force him to go swimming when he’d prefer to play quietly with his toys.

As the years slide by, the Garrett’s marriage comes under strain, not least because Mercy wants the freedom to pursue her ambitions to be a painter. She begins to spend more and more time at the studio she rents nearby, slowly moving her belongings there and staying overnight. Her adult children are under the impression she’s moved out of the family home, but it’s a subject that can’t be broached with their father, who remains devoted to his wife.

It’s the things left unsaid, the uncomfortable truths that remain hidden, which allows the family to muddle on without self-imploding. David’s wife puts it succinctly like this:

This is what families do for each other — hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.

French Braid is completely immersive as we follow the strands of the Garrett’s disparate lives across three generations. It’s tender, wise, knowing and funny. I loved it.

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.

Author, Book review, Doreen Finn, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘My Buried Life’ by Doreen Finn

My-Buried-Life

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 254 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish writer Doreen Finn’s My Buried Life is a remarkably accomplished, confident and polished debut novel set in Dublin after the economic crash.

A return to Dublin

It tells the story of a New York-based poet and academic in her late 30s who returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. But Eva Perry, who narrates the story, doesn’t expect to stay long: she simply wants to tidy up her mother’s affairs and head back to her life in Manhattan as quickly as possible.

Yet things are not straightforward, for Eva is nursing deeply felt hurts — she’s recently broken off an affair with a married man, whom she loved — and now all the painful memories of her childhood come rushing back: the complicated relationship she had with her estranged mother, the unexplained death of her father when she was just four years old and then the depression and suicide of her older brother when she was 16.

And then there’s the ongoing problem she has with alcohol:

I want to stop drinking again. I can’t keep on doing what I’ve been doing since I got back to Dublin. I can’t live a healthy or productive life if my principal objective each day is to count the minutes until I allow myself a drink. It’s starting to show on my face, in my body. […] I don’t want to be that woman, alone with her books and empty bottles. I actually don’t know what I do want, but I don’t want that.

Melancholy, hope and humour

This probably makes My Buried Life sound quite maudlin — I mean, come on, in the first few chapters there’s already been a funeral, a suicide, a confession about alcoholism and a broken love affair  — but Eva is such a fascinating character, and her voice is so heartfelt, honest and often self-deprecating, that the story doesn’t feel as if it is wallowing in the gloom of it all. Instead, the narrative is infused with a well-balanced sense of melancholia but there’s also a slow burning anger at its core, which gives the story a sharp little edge. And the secrets, which are slowly revealed one by one as the story unfolds, make it a particularly compelling read.

It’s very much a book about “home” — where is it if you are an immigrant, what makes it and how it shapes us — and the displacement felt when returning to the place where you grew up after a long time away. I especially loved Eva’s withering commentary about how Dublin had changed —  for the worse — while she’d been gone:

Political discussion on the radio […] washes over me like sea foam, numbing in its repetition. The lies, the accusations, the nonsense about the imploded property market, as though property were the only thing wrong with this country. As though politicians and cute hoors hadn’t been ripping Ireland off in every guise imaginable since the dawn of independence, and now, when they’re still at it, people are somehow required to be surprised, shocked that any of this could have happened. I want to point the finger of blame at them all, the bankers, the politicos, all who allowed this to happen, with their mock shock, their disbelief that this could be happening to Ireland. Poster child for neo-liberal politics. Celtic Tiger indeed.

But this is also a book about second chances (I suspect the Irish economy may well be a metaphor for Eva’s own life) and it’s filled with many tender moments as Eva finds herself becoming intimate with a new circle of friends and lovers. In its exploration of family, loyalty and the secrets that bind us to one another, My Buried Life shows one woman’s struggle to accept her past in order to move into the future. It’s written in lush, almost musical prose, and while it may be Doreen Finn’s first book, I’m pretty sure it won’t be her last…