Anne Enright, The Green Road (Jonathan Cape 2015)
As a child in North Queensland, I thought of myself as Irish Catholic. My father sang ‘The Rose of Tralee’ or ‘Galway Bay’ when he was feeling romantic, and Patrick O’Hagan was often on the gramophone; the parish priests (Hogan and Fitzpatrick, among others) spoke longingly of their homes in County Kilkenny or County Clare; we sang ‘At the Rising of the Moon’ and ‘Slattery’s Mounted Foot’ in school concerts, and ‘Hail Glorious Saint Patrick’ at Mass on Sundays. No matter that two of my grandparents were from Protestant backgrounds (though one of them converted), and only one of the four was from Ireland, and Northern Ireland at that. I identified as Irish. When, some time in my twenties, I met the concept of an Irish diaspora, I felt I had found my place, or at least a name for my sense of belonging to a place I’d never seen.
When I got to know some actual Irish people, I was shocked that they didn’t think of me as one of them, and even considered my Irishness to be sentimental, delusional and vaguely insulting. When I visited Ireland, it did feel a little like coming home, but no more than when I visited Naples or Valletta (after all, my North Queensland home has huge Italian and Maltese populations, and as well as marching on St Patrick’s Day we had passion plays at Easter and the school choir sang ‘Funiculì Funiculà’).
All the same, whenever I read an Irish novel, or see an Irish movie or TV show, it’s personal. One way or another it’s going to speak to my heritage. The Green Road hit a lot of personal notes.
The novel is named for an actual green road near Galway in Western Ireland, where the novel’s climactic events take place. The title also gestures towards the reality of the Irish diaspora: it’s the Emerald Isle but, the title suggests, the emblematic green has taken to the road. Each of the five chapters in the first half of the book – Part One: Leaving – tells a new story set in a new time and place. If you’re a bit slow on the uptake like me, it takes a while to realise that the serial protagonists are members of the same Irish family, living disparate lives on different continents as the decades pass: a young girl in an Irish village in 1980, her brother a decade later in AIDS-ravaged Gay Manhattan, a sister later still, housewife and mother in Dublin, another brother working for an NGO in Mali in 2002, and finally, back in the unnamed village of the first chapter, the mother, now in her 70s in 2005.
In Part Two: Coming Home, all four children come home for Christmas. As in home-for-the-holidays Hollywood movies, the famil’s unresolved tensions, jealousies and resentments come bubbling to the surface during what is supposed to be a festive gathering. But the novel brings a depth to that genre because we know a lot about each of these people: Dan, the oldest and his mother’s joy, was once going to be a priest but is now about to marry his rich male lover in Toronto; Constance, the responsible one, is now a mother who has had a cancer scare but didn’t want to alarm anyone; Emmet has devoted his life to doing good work for NGOs in developing countries, but can’t form a solid intimate relationship; Hanna, the youngest, is a failing actress, alcoholic and not coping well with having a young baby; and Rosaleen, the mother, is a wonderfully complex character for whom motherhood was her life and who, now that she is widowed, wrestles with ambivalence about her children, and plans to sell the family home.
The novel moves on from home-for-the-holidays when Rosaleen, overwrought, drives off and wanders on the green road in the bitter winter night, filled with memories of courtship with the children’s father, half hallucinating, possibly hypothermic. I won’t spoil the ending.
There are some wonderful set pieces: little Hanna watches her father behead a chicken in the first chapter (a scene that comes close to moments from my own childhood); Gay men party on in the second chapter, in ways that seem familiar from plays like Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance or TV like It’s a Sin; and, my favourite, Constance goes shopping for Christmas – a chore that takes several pages to narrate, ending like this:
She was on the road home before she remembered potatoes, thought about pulling over to the side of the road and digging some out of a field, imagined herself with her hands in the earth, scrabbling around for a few spuds.
Lifting her head to howl.(page 232)
This family is very different from mine. Yet, whether it’s the Irishness or something much more general than that, the book’s relationships struck many familiar notes. The oldest son’s special status, for example: as someone is looking through Rosaleen’s things, they see postcards of famous paintings and realise they have come from Dan in the wide world – and though my oldest brother, Michael, wasn’t gay, and the big city he went to was Brisbane, he taught us all about classical music, contemporary theatre and foreign language movies, and gave my parents a Blackman print to replace the painting of a gum tree on the kitchen door. I’ve already mentioned the killing of the chook. Rosaleen keeps bursting into poetry; my mother was a very different person from her, but she did love to recite the opening lines of ‘The Hound of Heaven’, and when one of the characters recites the opening lines of the ‘Hail Holy Queen’ I am transported back to the family rosary.
So much of my reading is about people, places and situations different from mine and either informative about how the other 99.9 percent live or invitation to speculation/fantasy. There’s real pleasure in reading something that keeps bumping into and overlapping my own experience and heritage, shedding light and conjuring forgotten tastes and smells – confirming and maybe grinding some sentimental or delusional edges off the identity I took on as a child.