Anne Enright’s latest novel The Green Road is set on that great Irish battleground — the family. She spoke to Caroline O’Doherty about the institution and all its foibles — and trying to be an inspiring teacher.
Jonathan Cape €16.99; ebook, €12.99
Dramatic homecoming, Irish style
THE adult Madigan children have been summoned home by their widowed mother as she begins sorting out her affairs and you just know from the early pages of Anne Enright’s latest novel that the reunion will not be without incident.
But before she brings them back to their native West Clare, Enright brings us on a tour of the lives the siblings have made away from their childhood roots so that it’s clear how big the journey home will be, psychologically more so than geographically.
So we have Dan over in America, whose announcement 25 years earlier that he is joining the priesthood opens the book and sends the matriarch, Rosaleen, to her bed for days in despair.
There is Emmet, the overseas aid worker, used to keeping his emotions in check in his work but having trouble reactivating them in his personal life.
Up in Dublin, we find Hanna, struggling with first-time motherhood and the bottle, wondering “what it was she had wanted, before she wanted a drink”.
Close to home in one sense but far from where she was reared, there is Constance who has all the financial freedoms her husband’s Celtic Tiger success bestows but all the constraints of a stay-at-home, put-upon, eager-to-please mum of three.
“I wanted them to have their own grown-up developed lives and then to come home and try to squeeze back into those childhood spaces again,” Enright explains.
“You grow up and move away and then it’s so impossible for you to explain your life to other people when you come back.”
The idea took shape while Enright was staying in West Clare, by The Green Road of the book’s title, overlooking Galway Bay in a rented house whose owner was, like Emmet, away working in Africa.
“I would go out for my walk up the road at the end of the day and that was where I started getting the sense of being so far abroad but thinking about home.
“Home was hedges and stone walls and ditches and montbrecia and the Aran Islands. Africa just seemed ridiculously far away and I thought how strange it is to be expected to leave there and just slip back into views of the Aran Islands being the norm.”
Enright had her own experience of being away and returning to find her feet — or rather her personality — too big to squeeze back into her metaphorical childhood slippers.
At 16 she got a scholarship to an international school in Canada and studied there for two years with 200 other students from 52 different countries.
It was one of the United World Colleges, founded after World War II with the aim of fostering understanding between young people of all races and backgrounds.
“Then you come back and you are, in an Irish sense of the word, “full” of yourself. I was the youngest and always precocious and chatty and confident so I suppose I must have been unbearable really,” she laughs.
“There would have been an expectation that I would fit back in and I probably didn’t. I was very dissenting. I was bags of trouble.”
If she was, she’s long been forgiven. The Enrights are “tight”, she says, and very well adjusted to the youngest member of their clan writing acres of award-winning words - the 2007 Man Booker included — about familial dysfunction without taking it personally.
But The Green Road is a story that will be personal to many, as the returning siblings assemble for a last Christmas in the family home that Rosaleen has announced she is going to sell.
Like many older Irish women living alone, she finds the empty house too much for her and has gradually become confined to a couple of rooms.
Despite the precious memories it holds for her children, she wants out of it. Enright’s description is ample justification for her decision.
“The gutters falling into the flowerbeds, the dripping taps, the shut-up rooms that she had abandoned over the years; the pity
of it; an old woman chased into a corner by her own house.”
There is great poignancy in the book, as we see the vulnerabilities of the otherwise demanding Rosaleen, but also a wry, desperate humour.
At one point, Emmet, feeling guilty about leaving his African housemate alone in an alien Dublin over Christmas, contemplates explaining to him that he can’t invite him to Clare “because I’m Irish and my family are mad”.
Elsewhere, we’re taken on a comical Christmas Eve supermarket expedition with Constance filling her trolley with every conceivable kind of food, drink and embellishment, from the water biscuits, tubs of olives and big foil for the turkey to the wooden crate of satsumas, “experimental bag of chestnuts, vacuum packed” and the “eight frozen pizzas in case the kids rolled up with friends”.
The frantic pursuit of the perfect festive spread takes two visits and three pages to list and at the end of it, a distraught Constance discovers she’s forgotten the potatoes.
We howl with her as she considers pulling her gleaming Lexus over to the side of the road and digging up the nearest field with her bare hands in the hopes of finding a few spuds.
Enright has chronicled the Celtic Tiger excesses before but is non-judgmental. After meeting aid workers in Uganda and Honduras where she visited in 2008 and 2011 to help publicise appeals, she was intrigued by those who decided to walk away from the madness here and do something useful abroad but she is equally fascinated by those who stayed and endured the boom and bust.
She’s conscious that what she was depicting as the recent past appears to be in danger of repeating itself when it could barely yet be classified as history and she wonders what anyone learned from it.
“I suppose what the crash worldwide showed is that democracy is over. It doesn’t matter how people vote. They don’t have the power. The power belongs to the plutocrats,” she says.
Enright isn’t keen to talk politics but it will not go unnoticed that there is a gay marriage — or at least an engagement — in her novel although she says the timing of its publication just before the marriage equality referendum is coincidental.
“I didn’t even think of the referendum. It’s just the natural outcome for the character. So it’s not a political statement, although I would be politically very pro-same sex marriage.
“My argument is, if they let me get married why would they not let some nice gay person get married? I’m a disgrace.”
For a “disgrace” Enright has done well. She was appointed the country’s first ever Laureate for Irish Fiction in January and will spend the next three years combining the lecturing and teaching responsibilities the position requires with her own writing.
Teaching creative writing is something of an anomaly, she says, because the ‘lessons’ can’t be prescriptive.
“You can’t do it for them. All you can do is keep them company, make them feel safe, make them feel inspired.
“I’m not really very good at making students feel safe. I’m more of a disrupter so I have to watch that.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved