Anne Enright is an accomplished Irish author, winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering. The Green Road was long-listed this year for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and was this week chosen to be on the short-list! Of all the book prizes, the Baileys is the one I keep a serious eye on because the titles are usually readable, beautifully written, and compelling. For a great overview of the long-list, click here.
Rosaleen is a very complex and formidable mother. Her children have scattered literally around the world, but the novel opens when they are all still at home. In this way Enright sets the scene and we immediately get a sense of what kind of home this is and wonder what kind of woman would get upset enough to take to her bed (“the horizontal solution”) because her son says he is going into the priesthood. Their ‘Mammy’ is given many interesting descriptions in the book but my favourite is “a woman who looked like she had a lot to say and wasn’t saying any of it.”
Over the course of the next years the family disperses and Enright gives Dan, Constance, Emmet, and Hanna their own chapters. They lead varied lives and are as different from each other as siblings can be. When they all converge years later for Christmas, carrying their own ‘baggage’ and by that I don’t mean suitcases, they are shocked by their mother’s announcement that she wants to sell the family home. They experience that disturbing feeling that their childhoods will be erased, bought and sold with the house.
“The house held memory and meaning that his heart could not. The house was full of detail, interest, love. It was a question of texture, Dan thought, a whiff of your former self in a twist of fabric, a loose board. It was the reassuring madness of patterned wallpaper under the daily shift of light. The sun rose at the front and set at the back of Ardeevin, wherever he was in the world, and when he came back, the house made sense in a way that nothing else did.”
Enright is very frank and doesn’t shy away from honest images. Her writing is so beautifully descriptive and evocative, even of simple things such as getting a mammogram or finding items in a dusty drawer: “Old cheque-books, one end thick with accusing stubs, the rest slapping empty.” In the chapter about Dan, who was in New York in the gay community during that terrible time when HIV AIDS first came on the scene, she talks about the poignancy of an address book full of white out. In the chapter about Emmet, a relief worker in Mali, she talks about losing her son to the hunger of others. Constance’s chapter is all about her relationship to her own children and husband, complicated by fear that she has cancer. Hanna’s chapter about early motherhood is heartbreaking and the opening scene is one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Despite the Irish intimate gossipy tone of this novel, and the sharply observed descriptions (sentences that took my breath away), we don’t learn everything about everyone. There are still secrets and we can only guess as to some of the reasons for some things. The ending trails away, things are not tied up neatly in a bow. But I see that as respect for the reader; we can handle coming to some of our own conclusions! This is a brilliant exploration of how family changes (or doesn’t change) when the children grow into adulthood, and offers pain, humour, and hope in equal measures.