The Green Road by Anne Enright review – ‘I am Irish and my family is mad’

From Mali to New York and home to Ireland: a brilliant investigation into the breakaways and reunions of family life

The Christmas family get-together: what a ripe subject for a novel. Make it an Irish family Christmas, as Anne Enright, first laureate for Irish fiction, has little choice but to do, and the stakes are somehow raised. There are more children, for a start. This episodic novel begins in 1980, in County Clare. We meet the Madigans: a cipher of a father, a mother who is, shall we say, something of a handful, and their four children. It is all rather rural, with chickens being slaughtered for Sunday lunch, etc; if you miss the date at the beginning of the chapter you will be mildly surprised to see them counting in decimal coinage. Dan, the eldest, has just announced he wants to be a priest and Rosaleen, his mother, promptly takes to her bed for days. No grandchildren from him, you see.

She bounces out of it again when she hears Dan has a girlfriend after all, but it is to no avail: the next chapter sees Dan in New York, 11 years later, gay, playing the part of the angelic Yeats-spouting Irishman and watching half his friends die of Aids. Subsequent chapters show where fate or choice have taken the other children: Constance in 1997 on her way to a radiologist in County Limerick, in the grip of a breast cancer scare; Emmet in 2002, employed as an aid worker in Mali, watching a stray dog he and his girlfriend have adopted dying, horribly, from rat poison; Hanna in 2005, lying confusedly in a pool of blood in her Dublin home after falling over while drunk. One begins to notice a theme: put quite simply, the fragility and contingency of life.

There’s a quote from a review by James Wood on the back of the book, which the publishers have used slightly out of context. “This is storytelling, with the blood-pulse of lived gossip,” Wood writes, but what is not made clear, perhaps understandably, is that he is praising the first, Irish section in contrast to what he sees as a certain inauthenticity in the second (which is now not lived gossip but “learned gossip”). I can see what he means, but I think the shallow, brittle affluence of a certain New York life then (“The place had cast-iron columns, Marsalis was on the stereo and a long scribbled piece by Helen Frankenthaler took up an entire cross-wall,” etc) is perfectly captured by Enright’s almost affectless prose.

All this, though, is by way of buildup to the second half of the book, where the family gets together for one last Christmas before their mother sells the house. This is really what we have been waiting for. Emmet, now sharing lodgings in a disappointing part of Dublin with a multiply bereaved Kenyan called Denholm, regrets internally, and in italics, not inviting him to the family Christmas: “I am sorry. I cannot invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.” This is where we sit up, or sit up even more – but Enright’s commitment to veracity means that the family is only mad in the way most families are mad: that is, not as mad as all that, really. Just sometimes impossibly hard to live with and love.

This is where the book’s heart lies: in its sympathy for anyone who feels, as they contemplate an unavoidable reunion, that the stultification of the same old arguments being played out again and again is, as Emmet puts it, “like living in a hole in the ground”.

And we assent to all this because the writing at the level of the sentence is so sharp and good. It is not so much that it alerts you to its own brilliance, but that it captures, as lightly and deftly as you could wish, the internal cadences of the person being written about. (Style indirect libre, invented by Flaubert, perfected by Joyce.) Enright has been paying attention: and this, it turns out, is what the novel has been encouraging us to do all along.

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Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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