How it’s New York: The novel is set partly in New York, where Dan, one of the Madigan children, lives for several years after leaving Ireland.
How it’s Irish: The Madigan family’s soon-to-be-former home is in County Clare, and it is here that the whole family gathers for a rather tenuous Christmas dinner. Anne Enright hails from Dublin.
“The truth was that the house they were sitting in was worth a ridiculous amount, and the people sitting in it were worth very little.”
Such is Anne Enright’s almost Tolstoy-esque summary of the Madigan family in her newest novel, “The Green Road.”
With her husband dead and her four adult children now living in different parts of the world, 76-year-old Rosaleen Madigan makes the decision to sell off Ardeevin, her family’s longtime home in County Clare. But most of the book really isn’t about the selling of the house – it’s a subtly powerful telling of the stories of the people who once lived there.
Dan, the “spoilt priest,” is a gay man living in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s. Emmet is doing humanitarian aid work in Mali in 2003. Constance is the wife of an opportunistic real estate developer and the mother of three, coping with a breast cancer diagnosis in 1997. Hanna is trying to eke out an acting career while raising a baby, with varying amounts of support from her rather boorish live-in boyfriend.
And for Rosaleen, increasingly an embarrassment to her children, there is forever the haunting refrain of “Roisin Dubh,” the ballad of “dark Rosaleen,” playing in her memory as she reflects on her life thus far.
The first half of the book is five stories in one – one for Rosaleen and each of her children – spread out over two decades. Other characters introduce themselves: Greg, Billy and Ludo, Dan’s friends and occasionally lovers; Alice, Emmet’s girlfriend and fellow aid worker, and Mitch, the stray dog she brings home from the marketplace. And the different stories are as much about them as they are about the Madigans.
Each story follows one after another, like beads on a string. But in the book’s second half, the stories are all jumbled together, as unresolved tensions come to a head when the family gathers for Christmas in 2005. This leads to the book’s turning point, a terrifying yet liberating moment when Rosaleen finds herself walking on the “green road” near where her husband is buried.
This is a novel full of Proustian moments, where things, sights and sounds trigger floods of memories. Enright shows, in painfully exquisite detail, how the most innocuous things – a box of Christmas cards, a pair of old black dress shoes belonging to Rosaleen’s late husband – can unleash a flood of loaded memories and old tensions.
Catholicism is also a strong theme in the book – Dan’s pursuit of (and abandonment) of the priesthood, Constance’s conflicted memories of selling condoms and birth control in her younger days. The opening chapter, the hints of the family’s pending disintegration, takes place during Holy Week 1982.
“The Green Road” is a powerful novel, and a look at a family (immediate and extended) under the pressures of old tensions and external difficulties.