In the opening scene of Anne Enright’s new novel, the eldest son announces he’s going into the priesthood, and his Irish mother lets out a series of anguished cries and flees to her bedroom. “This was not the first time their mother took to the horizontal solution,” Enright writes, “but it was the longest.”
Welcome to the Madigan family of County Clare: four children, all contending in various ways with the emotional tyranny of their never-satisfied mother, Rosaleen.
From its gloomy dust jacket, you might assume “The Green Road” is a slightly fertile version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” but in fact this is a rich, capacious story, buoyed by tender humor, something like Anne Tyler with a brogue.
Enright, who won the 2007 Booker Prize for her darker novel, “The Gathering,” graciously sets out something for everyone in this book, erasing any boundary between a novel and a collection of stories. In the first half, each masterful chapter focuses on one of Rosaleen’s children at a different time. While it’s not as self-consciously experimental as Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” “The Green Road” nonetheless offers a survey of Enright’s magnificent dexterity.
We experience that opening scene in 1980 by following 12-year-old Hanna as she watches her pious brother, Dan, trying to win over their mother. There is much Hanna does not understand, such as how her brother’s girlfriend will fit into his priestly plans, but she’s an enthusiastic observer and a willing mediator between warring relatives. This alternately wry and charming story traces a web of tensions across three generations in a little Irish town that seems frozen in time.
But before that setting grows too comfortable, the next chapter makes several striking shifts: Now we’re in New York, 11 years later, and Dan is a confused and confusing man planning his wedding to a young woman and sleeping with guys on the side. Cast in the shadow of a disease that’s killing homosexuals, this story traces the collapse of a subculture of artistic and sexual freedom, but it also celebrates the persistence of affection in the face of relentless mourning. What really distinguishes the story, though, is that it’s told in the plural first person: “We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days,” says the communal narrator. “We were putting the phone down on each other all over New York, gently, we were extricating ourselves.” It’s an exquisite way to convey the desires and anxieties of this lovely, dying group of friends, whom Dan, a “raging blank of a human being,” moves through in complete denial.
So elegantly does Enright create the unique foundation of each one of these stories that it’s tempting to describe them all in giddy amazement, but let me just add that there’s nothing she can’t do with perspective, tone and time. She conveys the grinding despair of an aid worker’s tour in West Africa just as effectively as she builds an entire chapter around a single afternoon at a desk in rural Ireland.
Then, in Part II, once we’ve gotten to know — and yes, love — all of Rosaleen’s troubled adult children, Enright brings them back to the old family home for a momentous Christmas in 2005. In this second half, there are no exotic shifts in perspective or setting, no arresting compressions of time. Here, Enright relies only on her carefully tuned ear for the erratic frequencies of irritation and devotion. “This Christmas was going to be a big one,” she says. “It was going to be a doozie.”
That’s a promise Enright can keep. Rosaleen’s children approach this rare holiday gathering with varying degrees of dread. Crippled by alcohol or laziness or bad luck, they have little interest in exposing their failings to each other — or to their perennially disappointed mother, that “impossible woman,” with her unshakable superiority, her proud insularity. “You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled,” thinks one of her annoyed sons, “because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare.”
Rosaleen, meanwhile, pretends to be baffled by her children’s unhappiness. “It seemed every child she reared was ready with one grievance or another,” she thinks while cataloguing their failures. Her younger daughter “was pre-menstrual her entire life.” The older one was “all girth and bustle. . . . Even her bags were loud.” Dan, her favorite, “was thriving in some way that was beyond her understanding,” and his cold-blooded brother was drawn away from her by “the hunger of others.”
The crabby mother holed up in a dilapidated home can feel like a stock character — easy to satirize in a stew of disappointment. And for a plot, the holiday homecoming is as worn as the Blarney Stone. But Enright’s attention to this discontented family makes their neediness at once sympathetic and funny: that insane obsession with foods that nobody even likes anymore, the passive aggression draped around the house like fragrant pine rope, the mad futility of selecting gifts for relatives who don’t like anything. When Rosaleen tells her older daughter she doesn’t want a present this year, “she said it in a faint voice, meaning she would be dead soon so what was the point?” Who among us has not delivered or received that pathetic message?
But “The Green Road” works so well because Enright also does the hard work of detecting how much these frustrated people care for each other, despite their spoiled, flawed lives. “Rosaleen was a little girl,” her children realize. “Rosaleen was a sad old woman. Their own mother. In a moment she would leave and go up to bed and Oh, they all loved her now, they were hopeless in it. They yearned to make her happy.” There’s comedy in that desperate fluttering of emotion — and truth, too.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles. On May 16 at 3:15 p.m., Anne Enright will be at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, 31 S. Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, Md.
THE GREEN ROAD
By Anne Enright
Norton. 310 pp. $26.95