Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Green Road.
This novel begins in County Clare in 1980, Enright exploring the inner workings of the Madigans. The Irish family's matriarch, Rosaleen, can never be satisfied.
Her once-garrulous husband's words diminish over time, and four children--Caroline, Dan, Emmet and Hannah--sit
with the boys at one side of the table for family meals, girls opposite, a tradition that remains inviolate. Abundantly expressive, especially when registering disappointment, Rosaleen practices what her children call “the horizontal solution”: she takes to her bed when life is unbearable, for example, when learning of Dan’s decision to become a priest.
With the deft hand of a seasoned conductor, Enright lays the groundwork for a traditional Irish blend of parents and siblings bound by the traditional beliefs of the land of their birth and years of maternal domination that unleashes each upon the world with private demons and interior battles unresolved.
All but one, Constance, flee to other places and separate lives. Years later, they gather for a Christmas holiday that exposes the grievances of childhood and the age-old battles between mother and children. The event is magnificent, excruciatingly painful, harrowing and memorable--not to mention familiar.
The first Madigan we follow into the world is Dan, the handsome boy attracted first to the saintliness of the Church but later and more realistically living in New York in 1991, there at the beginning of the great scourge that will become known as the AIDS epidemic, first to strike the vulnerable gay community. Dan is in his element, beautiful, aloof and much-desired by his peers, enjoying a freedom that ends abruptly in a scorching tableau of death. All about him are impacted by the agonizing losses of a close-knit community, friends and lovers expiring one after another. These men and their intricate friendships are brought beautifully to life, Dan vacillating between a long-term relationship with a former girlfriend and abandonment to his true sexuality, an era made so vivid by the author that its denouement is viscerally realized.
In 1992, Emmet is a man who yearns to save the world, expending his efforts abroad, nearly in love with a woman named Alice in Africa but too reticent to claim her affection. He wanders from place to place far from home, trying to make a difference in the lives of the disenfranchised and desperately poor where human suffering is beyond the meager sacrifices of one man. Later, back in Ireland, still engaged in his commitment to others, Emmet works from afar, always nurturing a secret dream of falling in love but never attaining that elusive goal. In contrast to her brother, youngest daughter Hannah doesn’t stray far, only to Dublin for the separation she desires, pursuing a career in the theater that has thus far yielded few satisfactory results. Easily overwhelmed by the difficulties life presents, Hannah, living with her boyfriend and new baby son, has turned to alcohol to solve her chronic unhappiness and discontent with the path she has taken. Too lost and self-involved to recognize the damage to her small family, Hannah seeks only the oblivion of drink.
Constance personifies her name, remaining constant and reliable, an oldest daughter
who stayed close to home. Constance worries about her aging widowed mother, whose life has diminished over time (“an old woman chased into a corner by her own house”) but still walks daily by the sea in a final bid for independence. Big in heart and body, a beloved wife and mother, Constance privately faces a health scare near the Christmas holiday, too busy to worry about herself, consumed with plans and expectations for the upcoming family gathering. The Christmas celebration is cataclysmic and revelatory, filled with unexpected insights as Rosaleen considers the end of her days and her many failures as a wife and mother: “How long would she have to continue being like this? Being herself?” There is some clarity as she ruminates on her children’s lives.
On Emmet: “She had lost her son to the hunger of others.” On Dan: “he was thriving in some way beyond her understanding.”
On Hannah: “Hannah lived in mess; her life was festooned with it.” Reliable
Constance receives less concern, a sensible woman ever bustling in the
background. Wild as the moors, deep as the passions of these diverse characters,
painful as the raw wounds of loss and disappointment, this novel spills over
with a love of humanity and compassion for the suffering of those who search for
love and sometimes find it, not too far from home.