Anne Enright’s 2007 Booker prize was for The Gathering. She returns to something like the family reunion motif in The Green Road, but here the occasion is a Christmas dinner rather than a funeral.
Seventy-six-year old Rosalene Madigan has four children, but only Constance has stayed close to home in County Clare; and it’s with Constance that the story begins. She’s detected breast lump and is in the hospital to get it checked out. Although the details of the examination are clear enough, what’s most absorbing is Enright’s description of Constance’s mental and emotional state that. She came without telling anyone, but fear is overtaking her, and she wishes she had her husband or someone with her. Yet, it’s her secret, her problem, and it’s probably nothing so why bother them? The inner turmoil continues throughout her transactions with doctors, nurses, and other patients, and she has a hard time understanding and being understood. Dramatic enough in itself, this opening chapter serves as a metaphor for the murky communication that mars the relationships of all the entire family.
Dan is Rosalene’s darling, the youngest, who took off to America to become a writer. Instead discovered his own homosexuality and stayed in North America where he’d have an easier time indulging it than in Ireland. He comes from Toronto for the family get-together. Emmett is a global do-gooder, working in West Africa when we meet him, trying to bring medical help and nutritious to remote desert villages. He has a lover, Alice, who is also a colleague. Emmett has commitment problems and problems talking about his commitment problems. Hanna, an erstwhile actress, lives not so far away in Dublin. She’s just given birth and has a stable, loving partner. However, she has a drinking problem. A severe one. She’s a mess, actually.
Those are the four kids who for various reasons decide to gather at the family manse for the holiday. One common motivation is that Rosalene is making noises about selling the house. Everyone might profit financially, but there’s all the sentiment attached to those childhood rooms and grounds. I should mention that along with a lot of drama, Enright invests many scenes with a level of humor rare in a book so full of intense emotion.
So what about this Green Road? Rosalene likes to take walks. She drives her little Citroen to a spot where the road has been left unmaintained to return more or less to nature. It overlooks the sea and rises above the surrounding countryside. After the rather tumultuous Christmas dinner, she decides to go ahead with her regular walk. It’s later than usual. No one thinks anything of it. In fact, they forget about her, absorbed as they are in their own conversations and thoughts.
Predictably, she gets into trouble with the darkness. The passages describing her disorientation in the moonless dark as well as those describing Hanna’s drunken confusion, combined with the earlier emotional dizziness Constance suffers in the hospital are among the most wrenching such renditions I’ve ever read. And Rosalene’s journey down that green road is emblematic of ideas and dilemmas far beyond its immediate circumstances.
Fittingly, the conclusion of the novel bookends with a return to Constance, though in a deliciously unexpected way. This is a first-class book by one of the best writers of our day.