I’ve come to the conclusion that there are four types of books: 1) books you hate, 2) guilty reads you enjoy but know aren’t great in terms of writing, 3) books you can admire but don’t enjoy, and 4) books that you admire and enjoy in equal measures. Those are the ones that stand a chance of landing a place in the top 10 in your head, the one your subconscious is constantly rearranging so that you’ll be ready – READY! – if anyone ever puts you on the spot and wants to know your all-time favourites right then, right there. You’ve got to be prepared for such important life events.
For me, The Green Road by Anne Enright falls into the third category. I really, really wanted to like it, but something got in the way despite the indisputable quality of the writing.
A straightforward Irish family drama about the dysfunctional yet pretty ordinary Madigans stretching from 1980 to 2005, siblings Constance, Dan, Emmet and Hanna have grown up in the shadow of overbearing mother Rosaleen. Despite each grabbing their opportunity to flee the nest, they are shocked when she announces one day that she has decided to sell the family home. They all return home for one last Christmas, this key event forcing each to reflect on the things that have sent them out into the world and yet bind them together.
Everything revolves around Rosaleen, a manipulative, self-obsessed matriarch seen here through PC international aid worker Emmet’s eyes:
‘Emmet blamed his mother. You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare. Even though nothing happened – she saw to that too. Nothing was discussed. The news was boring or it was alarming, facts were always irrelevant, politics rude. Local gossip, that is what his mother allowed, and only of a particular kind. Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road. Her own ailments of course, other people’s diseases. Mrs Finnerty’s cousin’s tumour that turned out to be just a cyst. Her back, her hip, her headaches, and the occasional flashing light when she closed her eyes – ailments that were ever more vague, until, one day, they would not be vague at all. They would be, at the last, entirely clear.’
Her children in turn seem to have inherited elements of their mother’s selfishness, with the exception of Constance who is the antithesis and a bit of a doormat for everyone around her. Incidentally, Constance’s introductory chapter, where she keeps an appointment at a breast check clinic, is the one section where I felt I was being drawn into the life of someone relatable. It is a chapter of exquisitely fine writing.
The rest of the Madigans are a self-absorbed bunch – aging gay man Dan, who seems to choose partners for the kind of lifestyle they can offer him, aid worker Emmet who embarks on loveless relationships of convenience, and youngest child Hanna, who is struggling to adapt to motherhood, with possible post-natal depression and a definite drinking problem. All of them are damaged in some fundamental way. The strength lies in the fact that the book is unsentimental in its depiction of family life. The downside is that it’s hard to connect with characters you can’t empathise with. Even poor put-upon Contance could use a good shaking at times.
By the end, I didn’t feel I had all that much more insight into the characters, and for me the promising set ups didn’t really deliver. I don’t require things to be tied up neatly with a bow, but I didn’t understand some of the motivations. As an example, when we first join the story in 1980, Rosaleen has taken to her bed (her passive-aggressive way of registering disapproval) after Dan’s decision to join the priesthood. We never find out what her objection was, unless I missed something. In later years, after he has come to terms with being gay, no mention is made of how Rosaleen took that particular news, even though it must have been a doozy of a conversation. All the indicators are that she is highly traditional and idolises her eldest boy, so the casual passing over of it seems odd in dramatic terms.
And there’s Dan himself, who moves to New York after having second thoughts about his vocation and explores his sexuality away from the microscope of his staunchly Catholic background. Enright’s depiction of the gay community in 90s New York being decimated by the AIDS epidemic is extremely powerful, yet Dan seems to sail through it all without feeling. His section of the book is told from the perspective of one of the men in his social circle rather than Dan himself, which is further distancing.
I found this a tricky review to write, partly because when I started my blog I said that I would only review books I’d enjoyed as I don’t want to slag off books on a blog about learning to write. However, I also set myself the challenge of reading and reviewing seven books this summer and it was unlikely that I would enjoy all of them. There’s no point in writing a review unless it’s from the heart. There’s also the fact that Enright’s book is universally admired and I hate that I’m always the difficult one in the corner going, “But…” I don’t dispute the accomplishment of the writing one bit and I certainly know many people who have adored it for the gorgeous prose. The list of awards that The Green Road has won and almost won is impressive – longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, winner of the Irish Novel of the Year 2015 and Kerry Group Novel of the Year 2016, and shortlisted for both the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 and the 2015 Costa Novel Award. All that said, the bottom line is that this book didn’t get under my skin, and that’s something I require of a book if it’s going to jostle for a place in that top 10 list in my head.
#SomeBooksofSummer 4 of 7. Next up – The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman