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Anne Enright: The Green Road

The Madigan family are the focus of this novel. At the start of the novel, in 1980, there are five of them. Pat, the father/husband is dead. He was the love of Rosaleen’s life and she has found life difficult to cope with since his death. Symbolically, the clock has stopped since his death. She has four children – Constance, Dan, Emmet and Hanna. The way the book is structured is that it is divided into parts – Leaving and Coming Home. The first part focuses on each of the five individually though each section has a separate, chronological date. Though it is called Leaving, only the three youngest actually leave the area, with Constance, after a brief foray to Dublin, staying nearby and, as well as bringing up her own three children, looking after her mother. Each section takes a snapshot of that period and shows what the individual concerned is doing as well, in some cases, as what their siblings and mother are doing. In each of the sections some event happens that it is relatively important in their life but not necessarily life-changing.

We start with Hanna in 1980. She is twelve. The key event is that her older brother, Dan, has just announced that he is going to be a priest. While this does not affect Hanna too much nor, for that matter, Dan’s girlfriend, whom Hanna meets, it very much affects Rosaleen, who takes to her bed, devastated by the loss of her favourite child. This causes Constance, who is living in Dublin at the time, to have to stay and run the household. We learn about the background to the family, particularly the rivalry between the Madigans and the Considines (Rosaleen’s family) and the pharmacy run by the Considines. Hanna has to get some bottom cream for her grandmother and, later, Constance will learn about condoms and lubricants.

We next move to 1991 and New York. We find Dan not as a priest but involved in the New York gay scene. He is not sure if he is heterosexual or homosexual. Indeed, he is engaged to a woman currently in Canada. However, he is obsessed, particularly sexually, with Billy and the two have an on-again, off-again passionate affair, with Dan unable to let go. We learn about Constance’s marriage. No-one else seemed to want her so she came home and married Desmond (Dessie), a decent hard-working, bald man, and they have three children. Her key event is that she finds a lump in her breast and we follow her journey through the hospital while it is examined and studied. Meanwhile Emmet is in Mali, working for UNICEF. He is living with Alice but things do not go well, particularly when he does not seem to share her passion for a dog they had rescued.

The second part is set around Christmas 2005. All four children are unusually going to be back home with their mother for Christmas. Like many real family get-togethers at Christmas, tensions are released and all is not sweetness and light. The seventy-six year old wants to sell the house which now, with the Irish boom, is worth a lot of money and is far too big for her. She says that she wants to move in with Constance. Constance, eventually, and her husband Dessie are less enthusiastic. Three of the children are now in Ireland. Emmet is living in Dublin with Saar, a Dutch woman, but has still not got over Alice. Hanna is a mother, a depressive and an alcoholic and lives in Dublin with her partner, Hugh. Dan is in Toronto and has just got engaged to his gay lover. We also see the new Ireland. Emmet does not like it. Since the money came in, Ireland depressed Emmet in a whole new way. The house prices depressed him. And the handbag thing, the latte thing, the Aren’t We All Brilliant thing, they all depressed him too. Constance, who spends over 400 euros at the supermarket on the Christmas shopping, is actually quite proud that she has done so and even goes back because she has forgotten the Brussels sprouts and spends a lot more.

One of Rosaleen’s apparent reasons for selling the house is to release the money to give to her four children, as she points out that none of them has much money. Not only had none of them achieved any financial success, they had none of them achieved much of anything. As Emmet says Poured his life out, like water into the African sands. He felt it keenly – they all did – the lack of anything to show for it all. Twenty years saving a world that remained unsaved. Only Emmet has anything approaching a career and only Constance is married and more or less settled down. Indeed, they are like most families – not particularly happy, not particularly stable, not particularly successful. Enright very skilfully shows us a family, warts and all, a family that muddles along, not sure of what they want or where they are going. She cleverly dissects their foibles, their weaknesses (but rarely their strengths) and, ultimately, their psychology.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Jonathan Cape