The Green Road: Irish Gloom Worth Exploring

Anne Enright
W.W.Norton, 304 pages, 978-0393248210
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Though I suspect they 'd happily give up the title, no nationality does gloom and world-weariness quite as well as the Irish. The English are often viewed as the champions at resignation and muddling through life, but it's really the Irish who rule that sad roost. I'm sure it has something to do with Catholicism. Read a novel about a dysfunctional Irish family like The Green Road, and you come away with the feeling that everyone would happily kill themselves—if only it weren't a mortal sin.

The Green Road is similar in style and content to Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, but without its (usually misplaced) hope that things might get better. If everything I've written so far sounds like you wish to steer a million miles from this book, let me direct you back to it.  Former Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright (The Gathering, 2007) is a skillful writer who knows how to uncoil a narrative. The Green Road, in fact, is a set of individual narratives that collectively tell the 35-year saga of the Madigan family. It opens in 1980 inside a house named Ardeevin in County Clare—a fictional place (probably just outside of Doolin) located near the Cliffs of Moher. Although paterfamilias Pat is present, Ardeevin's reigning queen is his wife Rosaleen. She tries her hardest to be imperious, but her brood—Constance, Dan, Emmet, and Hanna–give her fits, so she resorts to melodrama when things don't go her way—which is often.

Filmmaker Michael Apted once commented, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." In The Green Road, this holds true across gender lines. We see Constance as a controlling child who grows up to be a mother of four who replicates Rosaleen's desire (and failure) to be in control all the time. Youngest daughter Hanna goes off to Dublin to be an actress, fails, suffers from post partum depression, and drinks too much, which means she competes with Rosaleen in the histrionics department. As a teen, Dan announces he wants to become a priest–though he has a sullen girlfriend named Isabelle with whom he's been sleeping. His priestly dreams go awry when he and Isabelle flee Ireland for New York City, where they land at the height of the AIDS crisis. That doesn't stop Dan from pretending he's straight while having it off with every young man attracted to his outward beauty. Emmet is the one who tries to save the world, eventually going off to Mali and burning through a few girlfriends because, as it turns out, he's too sullen and self-centered to be as altruistic as he fancies himself.  

As the complicates their lives the one constant is that only Constance—Does her name doom her?–maintains much contact with Rosaleen and all tend to see her as the root of whatever unresolved difficulty presents itself. Move the needle forward and it's 2005. The economic boom dubbed the Celtic Tiger is already beginning to display signs of being less a Bengal than a sickly domestic tabby, but Ardeevin is well located. Seventy-six-year-old Rosaleen is not only lonely, she's begun to suspect that the only one who ever "got" her was her silent husband and he's been in the grave for several years. Why not sell Ardeevin—after a final Christmas there with her children? Think that will go well?

Enright doesn't invite us to love the Madigans, though she gives character and a strong personality to each of them. Hers is the best kind of tragedy in that it doesn't play upon cheap sentimentality. Characters are realistic in that they have faults and are a mixed bag of traits. Is Dan just a clueless naïf or a manipulative sexual gourmand? Is Rosaleen a spurned woman, or one who reaped what she sowed? Are the Madigans a metaphor form the Irish Republic? You read; you decide.  

Rob Weir

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