Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Green Road.
Enright’s short, staccato prose style is a good fit for the “separate but equal” ideas embodied in The Green Road, a novel of four siblings and their relationship with their neurotic, damaged mother. Enright’s themes, although universal, uniquely depict her exotic, wind-swept
western Irish locale, “the green road” in which she combines an insightful sense
of history and family with the quirky use of the modern vernacular. Enright raises the reader to the status of eavesdropper, elevating us into her characters’ many internal dialogues.
in 1980, youngest daughter Hannah Madigan travels on the green road to the old family house at Boolavaun, “the most beautiful house in the world.” Here Hannah visits with old Granny Madigan, who gives her granddaughter a sense of history: she learns how her father came from poor people and that she should always treasure her mother. Hannah thinks of her siblings: priestly Dan who will soon travel to New York; older sister Constance, who will stay behind to shoulder the burdens of Rosaleen, their newly widowed mother; and young Emmett, who will cast himself off as a sort of Jedi Knight aid worker, using the 'force' to ratchet up his personality into the stratosphere of charm in his attempt to achieve greater glory.
Revealing Rosaleen, the fractured, fractious matriarch who remains behind to live in the family home as her children go out into the world
(and then return years later for a much heralded family Christmas reunion), Enright highlights her characters’ cavalier, cosmopolitan attitudes and how they transform the way Rosaleen views her family. Dan, Emmett, Constance, and Hannah obviously love their mother, yet it's unclear from the outset exactly how the road to reconciliation will be paved. The years pass and Constance remains oblivious, wrapped up in her insular world of caregiver to her three children, to Rosaleen, and also to her husband, the blunt, outspoken Dessie McGrath. Unable control her obsessive-compulsiveness, Constance has a cancer checkup, frightened that she’s found the place: “a small, slippery mass like a piece of gristle” that moves around and does not answer her touch.
In Dan’s New York story, Enright inverts the conventional “new boy in town” trope, turning it on its head by turning Dan into an outsider. This pale-skinned Irish boy doesn’t exactly wallow in the sexual extremes of the early 1990s, but his obvious good looks (“sandy hair you might flatter”) seduces those around him, most notably his friends Billy and Greg, who spend much of their lives “blanked out” by fear and death. Newly arrived Dan, with his ambivalent sexuality and innumerable secrets, scrambles to make sense of those months and years where so many of the “magnificent guys” have become sick as “the itch of cancer pushes up under their skin.”
Enright captures this passion, love, and sexual excess by also focusing on the need to strive for more as the metaphorical hurricanes sweep through the lives of the Madigans. In Mali in 2002, Emmet can’t quite cope with his girlfriend Alice’s emotional waywardness. Amid the smell of wood smoke, Emmet becomes deeply disillusioned. When Alice forms an attachment to a dog called Mitch, Emmet is forced to find comfort in the fact that his affairs in the field are perhaps not built to last. As Mitch increasingly tries Emmett’s patience, Alice finds herself becoming increasingly suspicious of Emmet. When Mitch suddenly falls sick, “love me, love my dog” becomes Alice’s mantra,
angering Emmet as she progressively drifts away from him.
Enright intuits her characters' moral dilemmas as their bourgeois world threatens to crumble around them,
placing them in their five disparate roles. Hannah is flummoxed by her immediate crisis, her constant drinking a catalyst for all of her regrets. Rosaleen is full of pain at losing Dan “to the hunger of others.” As she writes her Christmas cards, she ponders the colors of the walls: “a dusty rose; it’s like living in shell.” Her decision to put the house on the market and move in with Constance then “die in her own time” is perhaps an extension of the immensity of Rosaleen’s loneliness: “they had all left me, they deserved no better.” Dan recognizes in the silence, the power his mother has over her children. He can no longer forgive himself for the misdirection of those years, “all that withering and wasted time.” Like Dan, Emmet tortures himself over failing to name the real events of his youth or possess them as his own.
Gracefully shifting between each character’s perspective, Enright leaves no one unharmed or unhurt. But life, of course, must go on, and the Madigans do their best to navigate a rocky path through all the emotional anguish. In the midst of their Christmas reunion--a
gathering most characterized by failures of communication and petty judgments--Rosaleen’s revelation that she’s going to sell the house ushers in a dramatic turn of events, the celebration turned dismal by her sudden disappearance. As friends and neighbors embark on a search to find her, Constance
is surprisingly angry. Of all the children, Constance is most cross with Rosaleen
and in a rage with Dessie for taking her mother at her word: “this maddening woman who spends her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people while living in a perpetual state of hope and regret.”
Although I thought the novel got a bit tedious towards the end, Enright gently draws the reader into a family somewhat at war with themselves, fighting to hold onto their eroding identity while resisting the change that has already come. Everywhere Dan looks, the family house holds memories and meaning, a house so full of detail and interest and love
(“a whiff of your former self in a twist of fabric or a loose board”).
Threaded with immense pain and melancholia but also with great grace and joy, The Green Road remains a haunting tale rooted in the power of family and of country and of the many individuals that are held within it.