By Frank O’Shea and Dymphna Lonergan
Anne Enright writes about families with problems, the central theme of both The Gathering and The Green Road.
In the first of those books we meet the Dublin Hegartys, all twelve of them: Midge, Bea, Ernest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice and the twins Ivor and Jem, The parents loved each other – a lot. The father, now dead, used to be a lecturer in a teacher training college; the mother is at the stage in her life where she is so addled that she cannot recall the name of Veronica, the central character and first person narrator.
All big families are the same. … There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift. Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense.
The Hegartys meet some of those criteria, possibly including the final sentence, whatever it means. At one stage, Liam, Veronica and Kitty are sent to live with their grandmother for a few years. During that time, nine-year old Liam is sexually abused by the grandmother’s landlord, an occurrence that Veronica has buried so deeply in her consciousness that it comes to the surface only after Liam commits suicide in England. By the end of the book, she has convinced herself to tell her siblings, but only with the caveat that was the central theme of their growing up: ‘don’t tell Mammy’.
Veronica is one of the lucky siblings who has married well and is comfortably well off. Her long-suffering husband is Tom who ‘moves money around, electronically. Every time he does this, a tiny bit sticks to him. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Quite a lot of it, in the long run.’
But Tom is like all the men in the story, deeply imperfect, the kind who is easily manipulated by a good tickle.
Push me pull you. Come here and I’ll tell you how much I hate you. Hang on a minute while I leave you. All the time we know we are missing the point, whatever the point used to be.
The reader may find such ruminations a bit puzzling or a bit annoying or an encouragement to skip a few pages in the hope that something would happen, but that would be a mistake because they all help to get inside the mind of the troubled Veronica. Anyway, come to think of it, the females in the story, including Veronica, are not particularly attractive either, all seeming to understand the role of tickling in making life easy for themselves.
This is the book that won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. So Anne Enright joins J G Farrell, Roddy Doyle and John Banville as the only Irish writers with that distinction. There are times when you may get impatient with the writing, with Veronica’s constant whining and her teetering on the fringe of madness. There is little by way of humour to lighten the story, though I loved her account of the family getting back together for Liam’s funeral.
I don’t think we kissed. The Hegartys didn’t start kissing until the late eighties and even then we stuck to Christmas.
It is interesting to note that Enright’s later books are more reader-friendly than this one and certainly that is the case with The Green Road. It is easier to relate more closely to the international and rural Irish settings and the people. The cover photo sets the scene: the sheer delight of childhood in the summer, with playmates, and a cold ice-cream.
I love the way the story opens with the word ‘Later’. It reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s ‘So’ to start his translation of Beowulf. The reader is catapulted into a world already existing and that presumes existing knowledge.
Hanna’s Mammy, Rosaleen, has made a hot water bottle for herself in the middle of the day: she has ‘a chest coming on’. Irish, or any other, Mammys don’t get sick and certainly don’t take to bed in the middle of the day. We hear soon enough the cause of illness:
She had not dressed herself or done her hair since the Sunday before Easter, when her brother Dan told them all that he was going to be a priest.
Here is an unusual inversion of the expected response of an Irish mother to the news that her son wished to take Holy Orders. The setting is the 1970s, Hannah is twelve, and family life is changing as older siblings begin to move away figuratively and literally from the West. In fact, big sister Constance is already working in Dublin.
The centre of the family still holds, however. Rosaleen, having ‘sequestered’ herself in her room for a fortnight makes a miraculous recovery, and downstairs ‘fills the rooms again’ listening to Hannah’s accounts and reciting poetry and stories from her youth.
The action then leaps into the ’90s and we are in Dan’s world. The priesthood never happened and he is in New York and about to exit the proverbial closet. It is a far cry from his spoilt Irish upbringing.
Eldest sister Constance is the next family member we meet. Twenty years later she is married with children, somewhat overweight and drives a Lexus, the ultimate symbol of Celtic Tiger boom times. We learn that she is home to visit Rosaleen who is now a widow.
Finally we meet Emmett who has been doing volunteer work in Africa and we learn that Hanna is working as an actress in Dublin and has problems with alcohol. So most of the family types from the first book are here again.
All come home for Christmas. Mammy is still the centre of everything, ‘being wonderful’ in her actions and her talk. There is some sibling tension, but without raised voices or histrionics and Rosaleen wishes they would all go away. In desperation, she escapes in her little Citroen and has to be saved from disaster by the only sober people in the village – the recovering alcoholics.
In many ways, The Green Road is a richer novel than The Gathering. The characters are strong and the plot is never predictable. Academics might well muse on the name Rosaleen for the central character. It is a name favoured by poets to personify Ireland and those same academics might even speculate about the conjoining of four children and the green in the title with the ‘four green fields.’ Before you know it, you might find yourself reading the book as an account of the psychological state of Ireland.
Rosaleen the woman is a masterly creation. Rosaleen the country did itself a service by selecting Ann Enright as the first person to fill the role of Laureate for Irish Fiction.
The Green Road is the only Irish entry in the shortlist for the €100,000 euro International Dublin Literary Award.
Anne Enright will speak at The Northcote Centre, Melbourne on Sunday May 21: her topic is Family and Fiction. Book at https://www.wheelercentre.com/events/family-and-fiction-anne-enright She will also be at the Elder Hall, Adelaide on May 22. Book at Bass 131 246
Dymphna Lonergan and Frank O’Shea are members of the Tintean collective.