Monday, August 21, 2017

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The Green Road  Anne Enright

His mother seemed smaller than he remembered.  Her skin was so thin, Emmet was afraid to touch in case she bruised.  Not that anyone ever touched her – except Constance perhaps.  Rosaleen did not like to be touched.  She liked the thing Dan did, which was to conjure the air around her, somehow, making it special.  When Hanna went to greet her, there was a big mistimed clash of cheekbones.

Anne Enright’s ninth work of fiction uses a collection of short stories and a novella to tell the story of the Madigan family of Ardeevin.  The first half of the work consists of stories depicting each Rosaleen’s four children – Hanna, Dan, Constance and Emmet, at vastly different moments in their lives and in very different settings.  We see Hanna as a child at home in Ardeevin hiding from the family crisis that ensues when her older brother Dan announces his intention to become a priest, then we check in on an older Dan who has moved to New York and is negotiating his sexuality in a world plagued by AIDS, Constance is a middle-aged housewife when we see her waiting for the diagnosis of the lump in her breast, and Emmet is working for an international aid organization in poverty-stricken Mali in a story about his girlfriend’s love of a stray dog.  These four stories set up the difficult balance of emotions Enright creates for this family:  none of these children care much for their mother, Rosaleen.  They certainly do not like her – and she is portrayed as specifically unlikeable, self-centered and needy – but are oddly compelled to filter their actions and feelings through her constant demands and expectations.

In addition to the creation of four unique individuals, Enright embeds this complex family dynamic in a changing Ireland.  By beginning with Hanna and the family crisis that involves Dan’s decision to join the priesthood calls up expectations of an older Ireland, hidebound and parochial.  The title is a reference to a road that cuts through the burren, a famously barran and desolate stretch of rocks and scrub that evokes the hard life of pre-boom Ireland so that as we follow the other characters through much less conventional experiences, we become aware of a different culture. 

When we rejoin the family in the novella, it is Christmas, 2005 and Rosaleen has brow-beaten her children into joining her for the holiday so that she can announce that she is putting the family house up for sale and going to live with Constance.  In this section we are living with the family at a different pace, allowing character dynamics more room to develop and for the setting of the family house to become more complex in its associations.  We get to know extended families and neighborhood character much more intimately.

The house and Rosaleen’s memories call up that pre-Celtic Tiger version of Ireland,  but the crisis here is not the loss of the house – none of the children cares much for the house, nor its associations with family history.  It is Rosaleen’s plans to with her children, to force them into greater involvement with her that provokes their fear.

There is near tragedy and a nearly-happy ending.  I must admit that I was compelled by neither of these, but that when the book was finished I missed these characters and this family, even the compellingly unattractive Rosaleen.

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