Wednesday 13 November 2019

Books: Bristling with energy and love

Small lives: Anne Enright’s sixth novel is a family focussed,
'fluent' read
Small lives: Anne Enright’s sixth novel is a family focussed, 'fluent' read
The Green Road cover

Niall MacMonagle

To that question, often asked of writers, "What advice would you give to an aspiring one?", Anne Enright's answer is sane and direct: "Get over yourself". Enright got over herself very early on. Never self-important, never self-conscious, her huge, dazzling, unnerving ability to observe, catch the telling detail, and dissect what we are like, has produced wonderful and wonderfully enjoyable writing.

Taking nothing for granted, she knows that close to the surface of so-called ordinary lives there are disappointments, regrets, recklessness, selfishness and a little bit of madness. The Portable Virgin, her 1991 collection of stories, begins "Cathy was often wrong, she found it more interesting"; it's a tone that has characterised Enright's own outlook and writing ever since. But Enright always gets it right.

This new novel, The Green Road, Enright's sixth, is another family-focused story. The Madigan family has its spoilt priest, its alcoholic daughter, a do-gooder Aid worker, and a Celtic-tiger, Lexus-driving "Mum". Their mother Rosaleen, moved "around and behind her children in some churning state of mild and constant distraction".

We get to know Hanna, Dan, Constance and Emmet at different stages in different settings - Co Clare in 1980; New York, 1991; Mali, 2002 and the Green Road itself, each vividly, atmospherically realised. Brilliant descriptions of a chicken being killed, New York's gay scene (written in a poignant first person plural), going for a mammogram, African culture, alcoholic stupor, a frenzied, extravagant supermarket expedition, a Christmas Day dinner, and a community's search for a missing person are expertly handled.

In Enright an occasional lyric touch is just that, a touch: "It was nearly April. A dappled kind of day." But that's soon counteracted in Hanna's being "fed up of people talking about the view of the Aran Islands and the Flaggy fucking Shore". No asterisks for Enright. And there's that wicked Enright humour: "She got her hair done in a place so posh it didn't look done at all". And there's sex. Enright's characters cherish their private, inward lives.

When Rosaleen, at seventy-six, who "took the precaution of saying very little, any more", decides to sell the house, the grown-ups return for Christmas and to the tension that every family knows as uniquely theirs.

Though Anne Enright's Ireland is shiny modern and multi-cultural - Constance's cleaner "a little bit vague with a duster - was from Ulan Bator" - the past is not over. Prayers and poetry and a strange, Lear-like scene towards the end, when a character ends up sheltering in a famine cottage ruin, remind us of something deep-rooted, elemental in the Irish psyche.

There's a moment when Emmet "faced back into the horrors of the Madigans - their small hearts (his own not entirely huge) and the small lives they put themselves through".

But Enright's reader is totally caught up in those small lives. With each book Enright goes beyond her earlier achievements and in The Green Road her fluent, all-embracing writing bristles with insight, energy, anger, and in its own peculiar way, love.

The Green Road

Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape, €16.99

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