The Green Road tells the story of The Madigans. Their family house in County Clare ‘had a little river in the garden and its own name on the gate: ARDEEVIN’. The family consists of Hanna, Dan, Constance, Emmet and their mother, Rosaleen.
The first half of the novel moves from 1980 to 2005, taking a lengthy chapter for each character’s story. Hanna, in 1980, visits her uncle’s pharmacy to procure some Solpadine and some amoxicillin for her mother.
Hanna’s mother had taken to the bed. She had been there for two weeks, nearly. She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.
Dan returns to Galway to continue with his degree but at Easter returns and during Sunday dinner asks his family for forgiveness.
Their mother lifted her hands and shook them free of their sleeves. She wiped her wet temples with the heels of her hands and used her delicate, crooked fingers to fix the back of her hair, which she always wore in a chignon. Then she sat up again and looked, very carefully, at nothing. She picked up a fork and stuck it into a piece of bacon and she brought it to her mouth, but the touch of meat to her tongue undid her; the fork swung back down towards her plate and the bacon fell. Her lips made that wailing shape – touching in the middle and open at the sides – what Dan called her ‘wide mouth frog’ look, then she took a sharp inhale and went: ‘Aggh-aahh. Aggh-aahh.’
Hanna’s chapter introduces the reader to the whole family, including her father and his parents. There’s a particularly brilliant scene where Granny Madigan selects a cockerel and Hanna’s father slaughters it.
The story then jumps to New York in 1991 where Dan, who came for a year abroad and never left, is struggling with his sexuality as the men around him contract HIV.
Constance in 1997 is in County Limerick having a mammogram.
Constance did not have cancer. It was just a cyst or duct, some change since the children. She was thirty-seven, for God’s sake. She had three children and a husband to look after, not to mention her widowed mother. Constance did not have the time for cancer.
Then there’s Emmet in Ségou, Mali working as a doctor and having a romance with Alice, who’s working on child mortality. And finally, the matriarch, Rosaleen, back at Ardeevan, 2005, writing Christmas cards and thinking about her adult children.
In the second half of the novel, the children all return to Ardeevin – we’re brought up-to-date with their lives and then we see them together with Rosaleen, who has news for them all.
The Green Road is the first novel by Anne Enright I’ve read and it won’t be my last. The clarity of her language, particularly the way she conveys character in few words, and the way in which every single sentence earns its place in the story are impressive. Enright captures a variety of human behaviour and is particularly adept at the relationships between siblings and with their mother.
However, I found the structure of the novel off-putting. Each of the character’s stories is well-written but I felt as though once I’d got into the rhythm of one, it was over and I was jolted to another character, another time, another setting. I assume that Enright structured the novel in this way to convey the passage of time and show each family member as a distinct person prior to bringing them all back together. I think it’s a brave and adventurous way of putting the story together and it will work for some readers and not for others.
On balance, The Green Road is a very good book. I look forward to reading more of Enright’s work.
Thanks to Vintage Books for the review copy.