It’s life and life only: Anne Enright and ‘The Green Road’
‘It was the darkness of sleep just before the dream.’
What makes Anne Enright’s novel ‘The Green Road’ so good? I think it’s to do with the strange and very personal form of companionship that it provides: by getting inside her characters’ minds she touches the ebb and flow of her reader’s mind. (Or at least, my mind.) But it’s also to do with the fact that her brilliant perception exceeds whatever a social scientist might achieve. She brings to life the intimate worlds of people located in space, time and culture. Always strikingly clever, she is often very very funny; she’s a devastating realist. So, for these qualities alone her work is remarkable.
‘The Green Road’ tells us about five characters (along with a number of others) who emerge from a family home on the west and Atlantic coast of Ireland – and who find themselves grappling with the extraordinary transitions of late twentieth-century Irish society. We begin by learning about Hanna, a young girl living in the family home in County Clare (1980), then her brother, the beautiful Dan – who ends up surprising and surpassing himself in the Gay culture of New York City (1991), next, his sister Constance – now a working mother – in Limerick (1997) and, finally, the fourth of the siblings, Emmet, who is working as an aid worker in Mali (2002). And then we dwell in the company of their semi-impossible mother, the cultured Rosaleen, who continues to wreak psychological havoc – especially upon her daughters. Rosaleen, a widow, continues to live in the memory-laden southern Irish family home.
In its way, ‘The Green Road’ might be read as a distinctly feminist text: the women continue to be bogged down by their responsibilities and the wretched fall-out from the prevailing social norms. Constance, for example, is left not only to cope with the traumas of breast-cancer screening – which her husband blithely ignores – but also with the ghastly task of doing a huge Christmas shopping for a last family re-union. She spends a fortune and yet still forgets the Brussels sprouts; she then realises she’s forgotten a number of other de rigeur yet stupid excesses of the late-modern western Christmas. It’s laced with bitter-sweet humour; it’s all very tragic and desperately typical. (And, of course, the Brussels sprouts get burned, charred, carbonised.)
More generally, modern life, as Anne Enright, shows, has gone slightly round the bend…
One of the reasons this is such a terrific book is that its author successfully identifies the fact that only certain words get said, and that contemporary characters are drenched in contradictions. Their private thoughts, their private truths, are often hidden – and at the same time, these private thoughts turn out to be temporary positions only to be unseated by counter positions. In fact, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her expressive portrayal of character: nothing is overly resolved. She also provides great insights into love and whether or not some people can ever achieve ‘love’. There’s a sustained and frank depiction of sexual activity – which lies, mysteriously, somewhere between the loins and the mind. (Or one and then the other.) The descriptions are vividly secretional and always tinged with failure, the failure to find the ideal or to find perfection.
When the family members finally re-convene for a last Christmas in the original family home – the encounters are scarcely bearable as each one of them tries to cope with deep psychogical distresses and the torments of values and beliefs in conflict. Rosaleen, the mother, for example, bates Hanna (who is now an aspiring actress but who has hardly ever been able to get any work) with the insouciant yet needling remark:
‘You have a heart-shaped face, I always thought. An old-fashioned face. You were born to play Viola.‘
‘Yeah, Well.’ said Hanna.
‘Sure,’ said Hanna.
‘Well you are an actress,’ Constance said, trying to keep the inverted commas out of her voice.‘
‘Yes I am an actress,’ said Hanna. ‘Yes, that is what I am.’
‘Well then,’ said Rosaleen, in a soothing tone.
‘I just don’t,’ said Hanna, ‘I don’t.’
‘Work?’ said Emmet …
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Hanna losing it. ‘I Just Don’t Want To Play Viola.’
‘I don’t know how you can say that,’ said her mother, Rosaleen, sadly.
And so on – and so on – as the family drives itself nuts.
Later Anne Enright tells us that:
‘Rosaleen was impossible to please: The world was queuing up to satisfy her, and the world always failed.’
The extraordinary anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing once published a marvellous book entitled ‘Knots’ which was all about the way most of us, particularly in families, get caught up in webs of psychological tension and which cause us terrible pain. And this almost perfect novel provides a beguiling and affectionate example of these awful and excruciating familial ‘knots.’