Book review: Anne Enright's The Green Road - flinchingly honest

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm

To read The Green Road, Anne Enright's eighth work of fiction, is to understand why the Booker Prize-winning author was named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction this year. Readers will almost flinch at its brutal honesty even as they marvel at its acute perceptions as it transports you ever deeper into the fragile fissures of family, love and the human heart.

Taking its title from the road that runs through Burren in County Clare in Enright's native Ireland, the novel is shaped in two parts: "leaving" and "coming home". It begins, benignly enough, with 12-year-old Hanna setting out from the Madigan home on an errand. Hanna is to secure from her uncle, the pharmacist, painkillers for her mother who has taken to her bed after Hanna's elder brother Dan reveals that he intends to become a priest. "This is not the first time their mother took to the horizontal solution," narrates Enright.

Through Hanna and her walk to Uncle Bart's pharmacy and back home we become acquainted with all six members of the Madigan clan as well as their in-laws, the Considines, and the town itself. Her mother, Rosaleen Considine, has married beneath her and to prove her point, Enright reveals the shame that Hanna feels at her encounter with Uncle Bart, as she remembers her father, "did his business behind a hedge, like the rest of the Madigans". But no sooner has Enright ensnared us in the familiar terrain and tropes of an Irish novel, she confounds all expectations of time and place, voice and tense in chapter two by jumping 11 years into the Aids crisis in New York using the first person plural.

Risky, gossipy yet oddly omniscient and strangely apposite, her use of the "we" pronoun conveys with devastating potency the urgency, horror and fear, the grief and heartache yet heightened lust of those years. Years in which we find Dan, the handsome, pious would-be priest, living with his fiancee, Isabelle, yet having sex with men. Lots of them.

Subsequent chapters, where we meet Hanna's now adult sibling, Constance, still living in County Clare, and Emmet, an aid worker, reveal that there is nothing Enright cannot do with words whatever the time, place or perspective. Hanna, who re-enters the narrative as a 37-year-old drunk struggling with motherhood as well as an ailing career and marriage, acts more as a cipher than a character initially.

Similarly, flawed, handsome Dan, always Rosaleen's favourite, only shifts into focus in middle age as he contemplates marriage to another man. Yet who else but Enright could open a chapter about the ageing, widowed family matriarch doing nothing but write her Christmas cards and pull it off? Time and tide, memory and potent life-giving, life-changing perceptions are effortlessly plaited with the present in this unusually shaped novel which proceeds towards a climax that would ordinarily be cliched: a Christmas family reunion.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Penguin Random House)