June 2015

by Helen Elliott

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape; $32.99

At Ardeevin, County Clare, the four young Madigan children are living their ordinary Irish lives on the plane between slowness and still-time that is Ireland in 1980. Hanna, the youngest, walks around looking, absorbing, wondering, but rarely speaking; Constance, the eldest, does what she is told, blanketing her fury in practicalities; Emmet, the youngest boy, is concise and detached about everything; and Dan, at 16, has just announced that he is going in for the priesthood. Dan is their mother Rosaleen’s favourite, and at his announcement she takes to her bed. The “horizontal solution”, Dan calls it.

Pretty, charming, spoilt Rosaleen Considine had married beneath her when she paired up with handsome Pat Madigan for love. Or was it sex? In their youth and beauty they “went to bed for days”. Still, the price was high; her family never forgave her, then children came, and she wasn’t quite as central to her husband as she had been to her adored father. Her children, accustomed to her theatricality, take an exasperated pleasure in the dark comedy of her life as it spills across theirs. Hanna is destined to become an actress and as early as 12 has learnt that “there was very little of herself that their mother held back. Her children were not what you might call ‘spared’.”

Part Two opens in 2005, with the children returning for one last Christmas at Ardeevin. Now in her 70s, Rosaleen nevertheless remains the spoilt 17-year-old. Poorly educated, unformed, a woman for whom formalities serve as ethics, Rosaleen cannot change. Love, though, has little to do with justness and everything to do with blood. It is this slipshod thing that goes by the name of “love” in families that is documented through the diverse lives of the Madigans.

Enright, a Booker Prize winner for The Gathering in 2007, has that singular cadence that is the gift of Irish writers. She prefers story – “telling it into someone’s ear”, she calls it – to plot “mechanics”, and this story, told in precise, controlled language, ripples across a constantly shifting landscape in which the characters bloom and fade. Emmet is a man keen to save the world but incapable of saving himself. Dan struggles all his life for some internal peace. All of the siblings have plans to leave Ireland – some manage the leaving, others do not. And none of the four ever quite leaves the terrible, beloved Rosaleen.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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