Book Review: The Green Road

It’s been three months since I posted on this blog. Yes, I did move house at the end of September, but I’ve also been struggling to focus, to invest the continued energy which is necessary to write, and then to edit a piece, to go back and fine-tune the language and ideas. The whole time, I’ve had this book review in my head, half-finished. It feels good, today, to finally come back to it and remember what a wonderful reading experience this book offered.

A friend recommended The Green Road to me after we found out we both loved Tessa Hadley’s novel, The Past. I had never heard of the writer, Anne Enright, and decided to buy the book on Kindle. My preference will always go to paper books, but I am conscious, these days, of the resources that go into the making of a paperback, and of the slowly decreasing space in my (new) flat.  

Here’s how The Green Road describes itself: ‘The children of Rosaleen Madigan leave the west of Ireland for lives they could never have imagined in Dublin, New York and various third-world towns. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.’

The novel drew me in immediately. It’s an ambitious portrait of a family, spanning about twenty-five years; the narration is split into sections which focus either on one of the siblings (there are four, girl-boy-boy-girl) or their mother, Rosaleen. Enright jumps across the timeline, letting years go by between each section, and yet you never feel lost or annoyed that you’ve missed out on years of the characters’ lives. The periods that she chooses to show are central to each character’s development, and they tell you everything you need.  

The writing is crisp and clear throughout the book, and Enright has an uncanny talent for characterisation. Constance, Daniel, Emmet and Hanna are all complex, multi-faceted characters, who behave in very stupid ways at times; yet there wasn’t a point in the narrative where I felt, as a reader, inclined to judge them. I understood their reasons, the things that moved them, and inhabited each of their lives in turn. Even their mother, Rosaleen, who can be extremely irritating, is a human being full of love and regrets, struggling with her solitude.  

As a writer, I appreciated Enright’s bold choices: the second chapter of the book, which follows Daniel in an AIDS-ridden 1980s New York, is told in the first person plural – ‘we’ – as if it is New York’s gay community telling the story, following Dan from afar. She sustains this masterfully through the forty pages of the chapter, and the effect is eerie and powerful.  

In a later section, where we see Hanna struggling with postpartum depression, Enright makes the choice always to call Hanna’s young child ‘the baby’. We know it’s a ‘he’, but we aren’t told the baby’s name until much later. I have a strange obsession with knowing names, so I found this frustrating at first. Yet, as the chapter progressed, I could see the strength of this decision: Hanna’s struggle with motherhood, her difficulty connecting with her baby, is represented by the absence of the child’s name in the narrative.  

My favourite part of the book, however, is a small section in a chapter focusing on Constance. Constance is the elder sister, the one who still lives near their mother, married, with children; the typical housewife, you might say, except of course Enright makes her more than that. This is towards the end of the book, and Constance’s siblings are all coming to their mother’s house for Christmas. It’s the first time in years they will all be together, and Constance – being the eldest, and the one to whom most of the dirty work falls – goes shopping for this Christmas reunion dinner. 

It could be summarised like this, in a sentence, but instead Enright follows Constance into the busy supermarket on Christmas Eve, aisle by aisle, as she tries to remember everything they might need and piles up items in her trolley:

She took five squat candles in cream-coloured beeswax to fill the cracked hearth in the good room at Ardeevin, where no fire was lit these ten years past, and two long rolls of simple red baubles to fill the gaps on her mother’s tree. She went back for more sausages because she had forgotten about breakfast. Tomatoes. Bacon. Eggs. She went back to the dairy section for more cheese. Back to the fruit aisle for seedless grapes. Back to the biscuit aisle for water biscuits. […] At every corner, she met a neighbour, an old friend, they rolled their eyes and threw Christmas greetings, and no one thought her rude for not stopping to converse.

Anne Enright, The Green Road (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015) p. 228.

loved this passage because it was so true to life – so exactly true to life, with the rhythm of the sentences echoing the rhythm of Constance’s thoughts, the items she keeps remembering – and yet I felt, as a writer, I would never have dared to spend two pages showing a character in a supermarket. I would have been worried about the reader getting bored, about the scene not being dramatic enough. Not worthy. I was delighted to be proven wrong by Enright, so dazzlingly. Just because it’s a woman’s everyday, just because it’s mundane, doesn’t mean that it can’t belong in a novel.