The Green Road by Anne Enright


51NAhJSSw4L._AC_US160_I put off reading this book as I understood it to be grim and I find grim Irish family stories hard to take. Tony's Book World, however convinced me it was worth the effort, and as usual, he is right. I love his first paragraph about this book: "The world was beginning to seem just too bright and cheerful for me again. It was time to read Anne Enright."

The book opens in 1980 when the oldest of four children announces he's going to become a priest. This news sends his mother to bed for weeks. The others are Constance who has left home and works in Dublin, Emmet who snorts into his dinner upon hearing Dan's news, and Hanna. The father takes Hanna to visit his mother where the young Hanna must hold the chicken whose head has been cut off until it stops flapping around. Like Tony, I remember chickens' heads being chopped off when I was young; I watched my mother very carefully on the assumption that I would be doing this myself one day. It hasn't happened yet.

Next we move to New York in 1991 when men are watching their friends sicken and die. Dan is the new kid on the block, sexually ambivalent at first, but he captures the heart of beautiful Billy, "a blond boy, on the sturdy side with a thug/angel thing going." Their stories are sad, funny, and beautiful. In 1997 we hear the story of Constance's cancer scare and learn a bit about her husband and children. Then Emmett's life in a village in Mali where his struggles against poverty and the medical ills of people there do not count for much with his girlfriend who wants him to love the miserable cur she has taken in. The dog upsets the household which depends on Ibrahim's care taking. Not only is it a problem for the Muslim man to have a dog in the house, but the dog gets the leftovers that had previously gone to Ibrahim.

And then we come to know their mother Rosaleen, at least Rosaleen as she is growing old and feeling irrelevant and resentful. In 2005 the family gathered as Rosaleen has announced she plans to sell the house. The drama for each of the siblings is on display and culminates in Rosaleen, described by her grandson as "really stiffed" and feeling unlovely and unloved, drove off to walk on the green road along the cliffs by the sea. Ultimately members of AA (the only ones not drunk on Christmas day) are called in to help with the search. 

I felt enriched and enlightened by spending time with this family. Enright illustrates the love among family members (the best was Constance and her son Rory) and a character's occasional clear insight into themselves. The writing in this Man Booker Prize winning book is of course stellar.

My own experience of "green roads" in Ireland was that a hiking path or road described as "green," might be brown, especially when it is in the vicinity of a barnyard. 

Anne Enright, The Green Road, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, 310 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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