Anne Enright's latest novel, The Green Road, is a complex and beautiful portrayal of a family. Far-roving in scope, the novel follows the scattered members of the Madigan clan through Mali, New York, Canada and, of course, Ireland, where they all reunite one Christmas because the family home is about to go up for sale. Enright's Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Gathering, also focuses on a family reunion. It takes place during Ireland's economic boom, as does The Green Road. The Gathering is told from the first-person point-of-view of Veronica Hegarty, one of 12 Hegarty children. Veronica's mother married and raised her family during the pre-boom period in Ireland when the stranglehold of the Catholic Church was at its height and birth control was mostly unavailable. As a result, Veronica's mother suffers from debilitating depression and "takes to her bed" to deal with the multiple pregnancies that make her appear, at least to her daughter, Veronica, hopelessly invisible.
The Madigans, in The Green Road, are a smaller family of only four children, though they are each big characters, the kind that can fill a room. Their mother, Rosaleen, the centre of the novel, is more of a force than the matriarch of The Gathering – although she is also widowed and alone, sometimes cloyingly demanding of attention from her adult children.
In The Green Road, Enright uses a third-person narrator who shifts fluidly between each of the siblings' points-of-view and their mother's point-of-view. This range allows Enright to enrich and deepen the mother's character – the reader has access to Rosaleen's interior thoughts and feelings.
She is a woman who married for love: "Whatever it was Bill Clinton said about sexual relations, she couldn't agree more, because when they were young and in their beauty, which was considerable, Rosaleen Considine and Pat Madigan went to bed for days. That is what she called sex, days they spent."
Enright gets the body – how it is subject to illness and aging,
decay, bleeding, tearing, death, birth and, most potently, perhaps, desire. The desire is errant and demanding, arousing and provoking.
And Enright writes the complexity of sex better than any contemporary writer I can think of. It is sometimes perversely wrong or awkward or unpleasant; it is sometimes fast and meaningless; sometimes prosaic and middle-aged, sometimes "terrific" and transformative, full of love, full of anger.
It is, in Enright's hands, profoundly human; it happens to people in the sweat-slathering heat of Mali, or in a bathroom on a train to Dublin, or in a mahogany bed where parents have died and children were conceived and born.
Corporeality – the obdurate fact of the flesh, that we must live with, or within, for better or worse – is a major theme throughout Enright's work: what it means to live in a body, to leave it when we die, to be subject to its pleasures and indignities. Emmet, Rosaleen's youngest son, is haunted by a memory he has from Cambodia of seeing a woman's amputated arm in the jaws of a dog.
Constance, Rosaleen's eldest daughter, must squash her breast into a machine for a mammogram, and live, for the duration of the doctor's visit, with the fear of cancer because there is a lump.
Or this description of Rosaleen's husband, who has died of cancer: "But my goodness, he made a great ruin, for having been so well built, those hinging bones, the joints getting larger and the cheekbones more proud, as the meat melted back and the spirit of the man broke through."
There's also Rosaleen's son, Dan, who is a closeted gay man in the mid-eighties in New York, during the rise of the AIDS epidemic – the wild freedom of sex between often beautiful, unfettered young men. Sex with anyone, at any time, and the horror of young lives stolen by the new and unmerciful disease: "It was 1986 and the horror was
everywhere: your neighbours used a Kleenex to press the elevator button, and strangers shouted 'I hope you die, faggot!' when they passed you in the street."
Enright also gets the complexity of large families better than any contemporary writer I can think of. The sense of duty to an aging parent that middle-aged children feel, the biting judgment between siblings, and the inviolate connection, fierce protectiveness, and clannish humour – jokes so old, and full of shared history, they can buckle a gathering of siblings with laughter and make them cry.
A Christmas dinner, full of family ritual and exacting preparation, sits at the apex of Enright's novel. It is reminiscent of the magnificent dinner in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The dinners, in both novels, draw the disparate characters together in a masterfully subtle crisis of desire and will, and a resolution of domestic harmony and coherence, however temporary.
There's an Irish folktale about a young boy who catches a leprechaun and promises to only set him free when the leprechaun ties a ribbon around a tree under which his treasure is buried. The leprechaun ties the ribbon on a tree and the boy runs off to get a shovel and returns to find every tree in the forest has a ribbon around it. I had the great fortune of teaching Enright's The Gathering to first-year literature students this year (or they taught me!). One day, a student showed up at my office with her novel bristling with fluorescent sticky notes, one on every page. The notes marked significant or dazzling or provoking passages. I sat with my own book, my own forest of ribbons, every page underlined.
When I read The Gathering for the first time, it washed over me and through me, as all excellent writing does. But in teaching the novel, I discovered the intricacy and artful cohesion of the structure; Enright's exacting craft. What I found I had trouble articulating in class was the very thing that makes Enright's work brilliant: her distinctive voice. Captivating, wry, tart, wickedly funny – ineffable, ineluctable. The Green Road – here is that voice again.
Lisa Moore's latest novel is Caught.