Anne Enright's prose dances and soars in bittersweet exploration of family ties

Irish author Anne Enright probes the bittersweet bonds between mother and children

In The Green Road (above right), Irish writer Anne Enright (above) once again returns to her favoured theme of flawed families.
In The Green Road (above right), Irish writer Anne Enright (above) once again returns to her favoured theme of flawed families. PHOTO: DOMNICK WALSH
In The Green Road (above right), Irish writer Anne Enright (above) once again returns to her favoured theme of flawed families. PHOTO: DOMNICK WALSH

The Green Road

By Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape/Paperback/320 pages/ $29.95/Major bookstores/4.5/5

With prose pared to perfection, The Green Road proves why Anne Enright was chosen as the public face of Irish fiction this year.

Her ninth novel covers a quarter- century in the life of Rosaleen Madigan and her children Hanna, Constance, Dan and Emmet, describing the bittersweet dysfunction of family ties with aching clarity.

It has been released four months after the author was named Ireland's first ever fiction laureate, out of a field that included Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry and John Banville. Colm Toibin bowed out of the field early.

Like many of her compatriots, Enright has a gift for characterisation through prose so economical and light that it dances and soars into the reader's mind.

Rosaleen's preference for Dan over her other children is captured in three sentences: "Rosaleen did not like to be touched. She liked the thing Dan did, which was to conjure the air around her, somehow, making it special. When Hanna went to greet her, there was a big mistimed clash of cheekbones."

The narrative moves effortlessly, carrying characters who are bristly, fragile and all the more real for their imperfections.

Enright excels at portraying the unsympathetic, such as the angry narrator grieving for her dead brother in The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, or the protagonist of The Forgotten Waltz (2011), who destroys two families with an affair.

Rosaleen is yet another powerful and almost unlikable protagonist. Unpredictable and dense with thwarted wishes and desires, she is the gravitational anomaly at the heart of her family system, the weight of her love and wants sending her children spiralling as far away as possible from her, yet always tumbling back in the end.

Nothing is simple for Rosaleen: She adores her husband with all her being, but is constantly conscious that she married beneath her. Her children are her comfort and her cross, never achieving what she foresaw or hoped for them.

So her husband escapes to his mother's cottage as much as possible, their children when grown head off to Dublin, New York and even Mali in attempts to make their lives their own.

But the influence Rosaleen exerts is even more palpable in her absence. Dan yearns all his life for the unconditional love his mother gave him; Emmet has excised this vulnerability for the sake of emotional survival; and Constance knows their mother always preferred her sons, but cannot stop herself repeating the same pattern in her family.

Families are a favourite topic of literary writers, but Enright illuminates the interactions within this complex unit in the way a sunbeam transforms an ordinary household kitchen, making the mundane gleam anew even while highlighting the dust motes in the air.

Life is made up of tragedy and comedy and banality and dozens of other moods in between, all of which the author captures perfectly in vignettes from the characters' lives. In the first chapter, the family is at lunch and oldest son Dan announces his intent of becoming a priest.

Rosaleen's reaction is both comically and terrifyingly described: her confusion communicating itself through ineffectual gestures, her hands touching her hair for reassurance, attempting to continue eating "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-aah. Aggh-aah.'"

And in the midst of this distress, the youngest child Hanna, discomforted by the tension, wonders why her mother doesn't just stop eating or go elsewhere to cry.

But these are the bonds of family, made as much by love as the weight of history and discomfort and anger over real and imagined slights between parent and child, sibling and sibling, and between spouses.

In the middle of the book, Constance and her brother Dan both separately dream of the local river and where it meets the sea: "Rainwater into seawater, you could taste where they met and mingled, and no way to tell if all this was good or bad, this turbulence, if it was corruption or return."

It is much the same in their family, where the ties remain tight, strong enough to strangle but also to link the siblings and their mother irrevocably on the road called life.

If you like this, read: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (2011, Vintage, $17.49, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of linked stories about a world where no one can hide pain and even papercuts are visible as bright sparks of light.

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