Knowing I was going to be reading all of them once the Bailey’s longlist was announced, one of the books I was rather nervous about was Anne Enright’s The Green Road. This was because I read her Man Booker winning The Gathering way back in my pre-blogging days and wasn’t really a fan, I then started The Forgotten Waltz but just didn’t get into it. Anne Enright and I had despite best intentions) a little bit of history, I hadn’t managed to ‘get her’ yet, so would The Green Road be the book to do it?
The Green Road is a difficult book to describe as in essence you could describe it simply as the tale of one family, when actually it is a much more complex and intriguing one than that. In the first part of the book, through the eyes of the four Madigan siblings and then their mother Rosaleen (who always looms in her children’s tales) we are given insight into parts of four separate people’s lives and the jigsaw puzzle of one families story, no matter how fractured it gets. In the second half of the novel we watch the family return to their childhood home, Ardeevin, for one last Christmas as Rosaleen has suddenly decided to sell it. Yes, you know there is going to be some family dramatics there.
Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.
I really, really enjoyed the first half of the book. Having found The Gathering a somewhat difficult, slightly miserable and cold read I have to admit I was expecting the same again. However within pages I was wrapped in the warmth of Enright’s prose and loudly cackling as we see life through Hanna’s eyes as her mother reacts rather badly to some news in 1980, perfectly setting up the family dynamic. We then follow Dan’s escape from his family which takes him to New York in 1991 and the gay scene. We then return to Ireland, County Limerick in 1997 where Constance is having a mammogram before heading to Segou, Mali to find Emmet working surrounded by poverty and sickness. Finally returning to Ireland once more to find Rosaleen writing Christmas cards and thinking about all her children and how her family have become so seemingly fractured and apart, deciding to sell the house.
Before we move on to the second half, where you might feel a ‘but’ is coming, I want to pay particular attention to one of these stories which blew my mind. I thought all of the first part (which is aptly called Leaving) was wonderfully written and crafted, one part in particular was some of the best writing I have read all year. The segment set in New York 1991 was so powerful I actually finished it sobbing. Whilst this is claimed to be Dan’s story it is actually the story of all those men who tragically lost their lives to HIV and the Aids virus, the men who Dan finds himself amongst while in turmoil about his own sexuality.
This resonated with me for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way Enright draws Dan, flaws and all. Dan is one of ‘the beautiful ones’ who people fall for and sometimes, because he can and other times because he is struggling with dealing with all his confused feelings, is an absolute bastard and a bit of a coward. Where you should be enraged by him, you feel pity for him and I think Enright looks at the shame sexuality has had (and indeed still has in some counties and mindsets) unflinchingly. She also looks at how horrendous that time was for the men who caught the virus were as well as those loved ones around them. I don’t know if it was Enright’s intention or not, however, in giving the narrative as a collective ‘we…’ they the ghosts/souls of those who had died watching telling me of the aftermaths of their dying and their deaths. It utterly floored me, I was a mess. I thank Enright for this because these stories need to be told and these people’s voices to be heard, without compromise or making them more palatable for the masses. It should be slightly uncomfortable by its nature.
Of all the signs, the purple bruise of Kaposi’s was the one we hated most because there was no doubting it and, after the first mother snatches her child from the seat beside you on the subway, it gets hard to leave the house. Sex is also hard to find. Even a hug, when you are speckled by death, is a complicated thing. And the people who would sleep with you now – what kind of people are they?
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.
The second half of the novel, Coming Home, was also wonderfully written. Enright gets certain moments spot on within family dynamics; the old resentments you have from when you were ten and can’t let go of, the negotiation of interactions and unwritten hierarchy when you’ve all been apart for so long, the moments you fight for everyone’s love and rebuke it too. All of this was perfectly drawn as I turned the pages. So there is a ‘but’ coming, as I hinted, in fact there are two.
My only two small criticisms of The Green Road were thus. I thought that the ending of the book, which I won’t spoil, fell into a bit of an old family matriarchal cliché and at once somehow became over dramatic and anti-climactic all at once. I think the book could have ended at page 280 and I would have been perfectly happy to be left guessing. The other small niggle I had was Emmet. Despite his quite interesting story in Mali was interesting, I felt that the novel wouldn’t have been much different without him, in fact I would have liked more of Hanna, Constance and (in particular) Dan’s stories instead. These are minor quibbles and probably just me sulking after being so bereft leaving New York and wanting Enright to give me more of that story, no matter how painful. That is the power of that section, I will let go and move on because really this is a beautiful book.
If you crossed the long meadow, you came to a boreen which brought you up over a small rise to the view of the Aran Islands out in Galway Bay, and the Cliffs of Moher, which were also famous, far away from the south. 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 – and rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare.
The Green Road has left me pondering if I have missed a trick with Enright all this time, or maybe I just read her at the wrong time as can happen. Enright is unquestionably a fantastic writer who, for me with this novel, conjured up the world of a family with all its highs and lows that felt like they might be having this reunion down the end of your road. Well, if it was Christmas and you lived in County Clare but you know what I mean. I didn’t notice it in her previous novels, so I guess I will have to go back again, that Enright does two of my favourite things in fiction. She makes the ordinary, and everything we take for granted, seem extra ordinary. She also gives voices to those who have not been able to share their tales. I know, I know, I cannot let that New York section go, but the writing is stunning. I mean could you forget, especially when Enright so aptly writes His head was a museum. And when he died the museum would be empty. The museum would fall down. Thought not. Let books like this one, though fictional, be some kind of museum or memorial for those who could not, or cannot, speak up.