In Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning novel of 2007, The Gathering, as the family stand round the corpse of the recently deceased grandfather, Charlie, the grandmother Ada spots a fly, ‘crawling on the side of his neck.’
Her rage at this, and at the flippant behaviour of the fly, spell out the hopelessness of the situation.
She looked to the corpse. She could not move. Then, of a sudden, she seemed to realise that this was her own bedroom with her own husband in it, dead or not, and she simply walked round the bed. When she reached the window, she raised one hand and pressed the blind flat. The buzzing stopped. Ada the housewife, with a terrible spot on her blind. We children now exposed to Charlie’s bald head, naked in death.
And that is the least the children have been exposed to. This dark and terrible book is about wrongs done to children and about the damage that happens in families and is never acknowledged. Veronica, who as an adult is charged with bringing her brother Liam’s body back to Ireland, is one of twelve living children after seven miscarriages to her mother, the ‘Mammy’ who must never be upset. She has her own memories of the abuse Liam was subjected to, and there seems no escape in this book, either in Veronica’s life or that of her mother and grandmother from the eternal woundings of sex.
The Green Road too is about an Irish family, but lacks the claustrophobia of The Gathering. Here we have four children and two parents. Each chapter is narrated by a different child, with a large section toward the end written from the point of view of Rosaleen, the mother. There is a broader canvas in this book. The characters travel out into the world away from the family, only returning for the family Christmas celebration that ends the book and brings some kind of resolution.
We begin with Hanna, sent up to her Uncle Bart’s pharmacy for some painkillers for her mother who has taken to bed in deep distress on hearing that her beloved son Dan has decided to be a priest and go to the missions. He has announced this at Sunday dinner. His mother is overwhelmed with grief. As she eats her dinner, tears run down her cheeks.
The younger brother Emmet challenges Dan,
‘You don’t really believe,’ he said. ‘You just think you do.’
And Dan gave his new priestly smile.
‘And what is the difference again?’ he said.
And so it became real. Dan would leave them to save the black babies.
Surprising then that the next chapter is about Dan and he is not a priest. He is now in America at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and gradually finding his sexuality in the gay world. He is also self-centered, on the make, and not particularly ethical. He makes his way in life with the financial support of his admirers.
His brother Emmet, never as loved or indulged as his brother, works in Foreign Aid. He sees starvation and suffering, but always feels he is not doing enough and this effects his relationships too. Then back at home we have the two girls. Constance, married to a builder who makes conservatories and pergolas for his wealthy suburban customers. Constance has children, worries about breast cancer, and tries not to become too entangled with the needs of her mother,
Hanna, now seen further on in life, is not particularly happy with her lot. A failed actress, with a growing drinking problem and a husband and two children, she is unhappy and dissatisfied.
Their mother Rosaleen’s story comes last. From being the mother who takes to her bed when she is upset, she is now the one who decides to sell the family home and thus precipitates the Christmas reunion.
There is a wonderfully strange episode, where she leaves the Christmas feast and takes off in her little car. She drives along in the dark, then leaves her car and wanders on the Flaggy Shore.
The sea was huge for her. The light gentle and great. The fields indifferent, as she walked up the last of the hill. But she got a slightly sarcastic feel off the ditches, there was no other word for it- sprinkles of derision- like the countryside was laughing at her.
As she, lost in the dark, recalls the events of her life, we hear of the love her husband, the silent Pat Madigan, had for her:
My life of life, my saint of saints,
My Dark Rosaleen!
The Green Road is a story of a family, but also the story of a point in time in the fortunes of Ireland, of the starving in Africa, of men dying of AIDS in the US. The Madigans could be any of us. Guilty, damaged, but still trying. Rosaleen’s words apply to us all:
‘I have paid too little attention,’ she said. ‘I think that’s the problem. I should have paid more attention to things.’
Anne Enright’s prose is carefully wrought, reminiscent of Joyce at times, and unmistakably Irish in its mix of the poetic and the darkly funny. Her characters, rural or suburban, verging on middle-class, occupy a different world from Lisa McInerney’s council house battlers in The Glorious Heresies, but their lives are just as challenging.
Recently I discovered that Anne Enright, at the age of sixteen, got a scholarship to a United World College in Canada. These schools around the world were developed by Kurt Hahn with the intention of encouraging understanding between young people of all races and backgrounds. My daughter went to a UWC where the students came from sixty-eight different nationalities. The motto of these schools is, ‘There is more in you than you know.’ Anne Enright seems to embody this. This year she was appointed Ireland’s first ever Laureate for Irish Fiction.