I am sorry. I cannot invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.
In her new novel, Man Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright has re-writ the Irish family saga.
If ever a book had the power to rip the heart from inside you and penetrate the very core of your soul – your dark, incomplete, displaced Irish soul – The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) is it. Uncannily familiar and gut-wrenchingly Irish, Anne Enright captures in The Green Road what no other author so eloquently has – the essence of the Irish family.
The elements are all there: The estranged sibling in America, Dan, transcending his middle-class Irish upbringing, making a new life for himself after leaving the priesthood or possibly never entering (we never quite know); the seeming-altruistic, good Samaritan, Emmet, sickened by ‘the handbag thing, the latte thing, the Aren’t We All Brilliant thing,’whose ulterior motive is simply to escape the prison of his suffocating Irish family (in particular, his Mum, Rosaleen); the failed-actress-turned-alcoholic, Hanna, barely able to hold herself together to mind her own baby, only once mentioning ‘the baby’ by name; Constance, the one who is left behind, acting the role of the parent, living the Celtic Tiger lifestyle (Lexus and property agent partner intact) and the weather-beaten parent, Rosaleen, still carrying her children into middle age, spent from a lifetime of being the glue that binds the family together. Every image, (cheese on toast, Cachet by Prince Matchabelli, twist cups) every word, every situation evokes a sound or smell or sight that is so thoroughly Irish that it makes you laugh and cringe and cry in a matter of minutes – the emotions evoked in the reader as turbulent and unpredictable as the Irish weather.
Like every Irish person you know, the protagonists of The Green Road, toil through the disappointments of everyday life, the banalities of mediocrity and middle-class, each with a separate narrative voice that is unflinchingly caustic and scathing but at times poignantly witty and tender. It is this very dichotomy that captures the ‘Irishness’ of its characters – the darkness in the humour, the grass-is-greener syndrome that afflicts the diaspora scattered across Australasia and the Americas. Dan cannot but sigh at the familiar sight of his native land and dreams of getting back to his fancy cheeses and ‘real coffee.’ Emmet despises the new money in the country and the false affectations that accompany it. Coming home is a chore to the Madigans. Yet home is at the epi-centre of this novel. It is in fact, the matriarch’s wish to sell the family home that pulls the family back together to Ardeevin, Co. Clare in a tidal wave of Tsunami proportions.
The Green Road spans 25 years – no mean feat, even for a seasoned author like Enright and switches narrative voice with each chapter.The first five chapters are dedicated to each of the Madigans, Hanna, Dan, Constance, Emmet and Rosaleen in consecutive order. Hanna, the youngest is given the first chapter of the book. In Ardeevin, Co. Clare in 1980, the youngest Madigan is sent to her uncle Bart Considine’s medical hall to pick up something for her mother’s chest. She recalls her sister working in the pharmacy where the world and its mother would arrive with furtive prescriptions for condoms. The device that brings the offspring together again is a Christmas card with a brief note – Rosaleen Madigan seems to decide almost on a whim that she will sell the family home. Is it to thwart her offspring? It certainly seems so in the moment. And this mythical concept of home is what draws the Madigans together, the Madigans who so desperately strive to have their own separate identities, yet cannot help the massive pull towards the home of their childhood, to feel anchored and settled in some physical place. Emmet has travelled to the far-off corners of the earth with his aid work yet he stills finds parallels with home, sometimes in the oddest of places. He describes the smell of the malaria-stricken countries as having a ‘chemical edge to it,like walking past the hairdresser’s at home.’ Dan, contacting Greg on Facebook after all those years, describes himself as ‘Irish Dan,’ an identity he appears to relish.
Reminiscent of Paul Mercier’s play The Passing, staged in the Abbey Theatre in conjunction with The East Pier in 2011, Anne Enright in The Green Road does not offer any neat or seamless ending. In fact, the turbulence seems to only cease briefly, during the central crisis of the novel. Ironic, that in the midst of such chaos, comes peace for the Madigans. Rosaleen describes it as the happiest time of her later life. The protagonist of The Passing, Catherine, returns home to her childhood home which is due for sale. The reasons for the sale of the familial home is very different (in The Passing, it is very much post-boom era and they need the money) whereas Rosaleen’s decision comes right in the middle of the property bubble with Constance’s husband Dessie helping her to get the best deal. Rosaleen’s decision seems to come without any pre-meditation, just after Constance has refused to sit with her and drink a cup of tea. The rejection seems to spur her decision. And the Christmas day that follows is the quintessential Irish family gathering; embroiled in drama and petty bickering and tears and yet all the while, love existing – right down in the bowels of the characters -never quite bubbling to the surface but always there like a latent fire lying dormant, ready to be ignited at the slightest hint of a crisis, like the disappearance towards the end of the novel.
If any author has won the right to be the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, Anne Enright has earned it in spades. For anyone who has ever felt displaced or a has a keen curiosity at what anchors and binds together the natives of this tiny little country we call Ireland, The Green Road delivers this in exceptionally beautiful prose. An absolute must-read