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.
What a perfect family-reflective personal response to this book, Jonathan. I am buying it right now!!!
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Thanks Jim. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve just seen some blistering dismissals in the reviews on Librarything.
Hi Jonathan, read this one years ago and it was one of my favourite reads. Brilliant review, I enjoyed reading your reflections immensely and I agree, the book does an incredible job at capturing family dynamics and complicated relations. I found that it’s the everyday nature of it all that makes it shine. I would definitely recommend The Gathering too.
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Thanks , Evan. I guess The Gathering is now on my sagging TBR shelf
My family were mostly out of Anglican (low church) into the weirdly fundamentalist (as you know) but most of our close neighbours growing up had a fall-back if not everyday to mass Catholic background. (Some people referred to them as Roman/or was it roaming Catholic? Great friends – and still – though scarcely any of with any affiliation nowadays. But it’s the background to our lives – those of us of a certain age. Religion. Church – the rites – different but in essence – the same function – comfort in the familiar – and all part of the religiously symbolic panoply. I’ve mentioned here or on WG’s site that Shakespeare – though a mystery to many of my classmates at THS – was as easy as making an ex tempore prayer by me – the King James version of the Bible the backdrop to Shakespeare’s own writing in English. And in English I at Sydney – what a pleasant shock to find the beautifully sprung rhythm and inscape sensibilities of G.M. Hopkins – again – though far from Catholic myself – almost all of it easily understand. A good friend over the past quarter of a century is the great Marist Reconciliation Priest Paul Glynn. He’s just sent me a book annotated all over with his underlinings and appended notes – G K Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” – brilliant. I am annotating parts of it myself – by high-lighting lines – sometimes crossing over Paul’s own markings. He’s heading for 92 – we are not so different – he and another brother also a Marist priest (Tony – in Japan 40 years till his death 1954-94) spent many years in Japan – we share that. And I think of him as worthy of the Catholic Church’s canonisation! Anyway – during my early teaching years our colleague/friend/bridesmaid and her Catholic family (and Marist Bro. brother) became part of our family – though we had no Irish ancestry. The bridesmaid’s parents were long gone when 10 years ago my wife booked us a trip to Eire – marvellous blossom-filled and virtually no rain to speak of fortnight. Then to a family wedding in Shropshire – half my cousins there had Irish spouses or Irish mothers-in-law! That was exciting. Arriving back in Australia I collected a Kable cousin’s history monograph – our mutual great x 2 grand-mother born in Nottingham (Sherwood Foresters the HQ there is nowadays called) of a couple (he at least though probably both) from Dromore in County Down – born there late 1770s/early 1780s – Danny Doyle his name – hers Mary McCornac (cognate of Nats Leader McCormack – surely!!!). He was killed in Spain May 5th 1811 – (fighting with Duke of Wellington against the French Napoleonic Forces) at Fuentes de Oñoro – – an idle leafing through an ancient passport revealed I had had it stamped at that very border crossing into Spain from Portugal in late January 1973. Two more Catholic countries!!! I’m trying to compete here with Anne Enright!!! Time to pull over! Jim
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Ha ha, I think the Irish have to put up with a lot of ’emotional Irishness’ though they are fine ones to think of anyone as sentimental!
You would know that over at Sue’s there was a Monday Musings about expats… your post captures exactly what can never be understood by Australians born and bred for generations from solid Prod stock and staying put on Australian soil, (even if they travel a bit). An indestructible sentimental attachment remains to the mother country, persisting over generations. No matter how young we were when uprooted, or whether it’s by choice in adulthood, no matter how long we have lived in the new abode, and even if we marry ‘out’ as my Irish mother (born in Belgium) did to the outrage of her Irish mother (who was Anglo-Irish anyway, and who’d done the same) — that attachment lives on in the songs, the poetry, the family stories, the way we cook our Christmas dinners, the family photo album with Auntie Sadie and Uncle Pat, and it passes on to the next generation and the one after that as well.
And no amount of other people telling us that we should ditch those sentimental attachments is ever going to work… In my case there are even Irish sentence structures and bits of vocab in the way I speak in my posh British accent, and I never went to Ireland until I was in my fifties.
I have The Green Road on the TBR… the homecoming elements sound a little like The Gathering, which I really liked.
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That’s so well described, Lisa. I must look up that Monday Musing
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I read this a few years ago now, but just seeing the name pop up in my feed, brought the pleasure of reading it back. I’m not Irish or Catholic, but I did grow up in a large family, like most of Enright’s characters. The way her siblings rub up against each other and how their childhood stories clash and their ability to continue to bruise each other into their adult years rings very true.
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