Book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This tale of a family reunion seething with resentment and disappointment may not hit the heights of Enright’s finest, but is still a literary joy

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright excels at the sort of novel where everyone hates each other, but who are all ultimately bound by a shared history, communal self-loathing and, even, love.

Enright’s novels are usually set within the raging heart of a family where the protagonists seethe silently – and sometimes not so silently – with unresolved jealousy, unspoken traumas and petty feuds. I love her novels, seeped as they are with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Real life in other words, but told so much more eloquently than our own; in Enright’s novels, the everyday is elevated to art.

As in all the best novels, little happens in The Green Road. Like other Enright books it’s character led, although the plot is always on the cusp of kicking off, that simmering resentment within the nuclear family threatening to explode. The Green Road, in Enright tradition, doesn’t follow a neat narrative cliche; when you think you know what’s going to happen, Enright changes down a gear and the result is far less dramatic – and yet somehow more dramatic – than you think it’s going to be.

Everyday life and its blandness is reflected back at us with Enright’s illuminating prose. In The Green Road, the spotlight falls on the Madigan family. There’s Constance, overweight, kind, put-upon; the youngest (and the prettiest) Hanna who finds solace for her shattered dreams in a sherry bottle while second son Emmet tries to heal real wounds in the developing world, but can’t mend his. (I wasn’t convinced by Dan, the gay oldest son who runs off to the New World, he seemed a bit uneven, a little lightweight).

Their backstories lead us to a reunion at the family house in County Clare in 2005, herded back home by their infuriating, magnetic mother, Rosaleen. Her character is established at the beginning of the novel, set a couple of decades before the ill-fated Christmas reunion, when she takes to her bed after Dan tells her he’s going to become a priest (mothers in literature Who Take To Their Beds is one of those Things That Happens In Novels, like it always being a hot summer). Rosaleen is a childlike, snidey woman who her children are desperate to run away from (New York, the developing world, the bottom of a bottle, biscuits) but are so shaped by her that they can never truly escape.

Despite great acclaim (including another Man Booker Prize nod) The Green Road fell a little flatter than her previous novels, the wonderful The Gathering and the equally startling The Forgotten Waltz (her selection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, is also excellent), it never quite pulled me into its snare in the way her other books have. But with Enright’s writing as its star, it’s still a novel that is as lush and stimulating as the Irish countryside.

Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright

ImageAnne Enright is a novelist of such skill she can turn the mundane, everyday domestic into something sad, powerful and beautiful.

The Forgotten Waltz follows the aftermath of an affair, told through the eyes of Gina Moynihan, an unremarkable thirty-something Dubliner who works as something in marketing.

In essence, it’s a simple story. Infidelity is a well-worn subject, but in Enright’s hands it becomes a dramatic, fascinating study of human fragility, greed, desire and love, in all its forms.

The story begins at the end. We find Gina waiting in her mum’s draughty former house to pick up her lover’s 12-year-old daughter from the bus stop. As the snow falls, she contemplates the path her life has taken – how did she find herself waiting for a man she barely knew a year ago’s child? Gina’s thoughts then drift to her first encounter with Seán Vallely a simple glance that couldn’t have foretold what was to come. It’s not love at first sight, nor the passionate Darcy-Elizabeth hate, he was simply, “The stranger I sleep besides now”.

The love affair between Gina and the man she eventually leaves her husband for isn’t the passionate, but doomed tale of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. It’s unsexy snatched encounters in bland airport hotel rooms, drunken fumbles at work conventions, all the while accompanied, not by a beating heart, but with a gnawing sadness, waves of guilt and a nagging feeling that the new life she’s started is as static, as undramatic, as her old one.

In a world where we’re still encouraged to believe that we will one day meet our soul mate’s eyes across a crowded room and live happily ever after, Enright writes about love, or perhaps more accurately, relationships, with a delft and accurate hand. There are no thunderbolts; Gina soon realises the man she’s left and the man she now lives with are interchangeable – even if one is better at housework.

The characters are all so wonderfully drawn. We’re never told what they’re explicitly like, but the picture Enright builds allows us to get to know them better than a thousand adjectives would. Gina is so whole and human I felt like I knew her; she’s flawed – often stupid, sometimes kind, envious, scornful of her sister’s Sunday supplement lifestyle, overly concerned with appearances and short on self-awareness.

Enright is a truly captivating writer, with a wonderful knack of saying something perfectly that I’ve only been able to half articulate before. From the description of her ‘pretty girl’ sister, to Gina’s, almost unconscious, musings on the love of her life, tinged as it is, with uneasiness.

There’s no resolution, Gina isn’t condemned and shunned for being a “fallen woman”, she’s just consigned to the ordinary life of a suburban Dubliner with a past and a future she has yet to reconcile. If only life could be as beautiful as Enright’s writing.

Suzanne Elliott