Thursday 27 October 2016

Home is often where the heart and the hurt are ...

The Green Road By Anne Enright Jonathan Cape (2015) €16.99 HHHHH

I haven't had many five-star books this year, alas, and the majority of those few have been non-fiction.

It was with joy that within two pages, I was utterly absorbed in this, the latest novel from our first Laureate for Irish Fiction.

Enright's 2007 novel, The Gathering, won the Booker, and was also awarded the distinction of Irish Novel of the Year. I remember reading What Are You Like? when it was released in 2001, and not being nearly as engaged as I was here.

It may well be a case of a reader not being ready for a writer, or a writer who was still working out the kinks.

Whatever: it was with that in mind that I began The Green Road, and literally within minutes, I was made new as a reader, utterly enthralled by the voice of a writer, and by the world she was creating.

It's a world that many of us are familiar with, the story of a family in Ireland over the course of 25 years, through the hard times and into the boom times; through emigration, illness, separation, disenchantment and bitterness.


And despite the tribulation and the petty grievances, the bonds of shared history, of common ground, the moments of solidarity and humour tie siblings, mothers and children, husbands and wives together through time and space.

In the beginning, it is 1980 and there's the usual drama in the Madigan household: son Dan has professed his intention to go for a priest, and mum Rosaleen has taken to her bed in high doh.

Eldest Constance is already quite used to stepping in when mum is having an episode; father Pat is the silent disengaged presence one has come to expect of all Irish fathers; the youngest, Hanna, is a child who feels too much and second son Emmet almost wilfully refuses to feel anything.

As quickly and deftly as we are acquainted with the family, we are equally effortlessly acquainted with the town, the anywhere-in-Ireland village with its humped-back bridge, petrol station, popular local, butchers, chemists.

It's as predictable as one could imagine, and yet when we return to the village towards the end of the novel, the sense of recognition is almost breathtaking.

We've been there before, and despite having gone so far afield with all the characters, the familiarity allies us with them so vociferously, to a degree I have never come across in a novel.

How we return to the house, Ardiveen, almost shouldn't work.

Each child gets their own chapter, each the sole focus of a moment in time, with the widowed Rosaleen taking up the rear until all are reunited over Christmas, in a panic over mum's announcement that she's selling the family home.

Each story is self-contained and makes little to no reference to what else is going on in the family, which says it all really.

This family has scattered, splintered, and depending on your point of view, this is a tragedy or is actually the natural order.

When we return for the holiday, though, the tone does distil beautifully, and non-judgementally, into one of frustrated connection, of reluctant compassion, of adult children who yearn to be simply adults, and of a mother whose push-me-pull-you approach to parenting is reaping what it has sown.


In the dark hours of the Christmas evening, it all unravels, and the sheer tenseness of the events - I won't spoil - would rival that of any thriller you could put your hand on.

And yet, the beauty of the writing never compromises itself: if you can imagine lyrical panic, this achieves it.

This choice to isolate each character into his or her own chapter could have veered entirely into telling-not-showing territory if not for the voice, an omniscience that has a personality all of its own.

It's a prose tone that takes on that of a slightly exasperated, entertained god, who recounts each biography with a sort of frustrated affection that is, by turns, acerbic and loving.

Added to all of this, its tour of our contemporary times also makes it effective and heartbreaking.

It makes it utterly Irish and utterly universal; it finds the Irishness in the world and universality in Irishness.

It writes the small large, and condenses enormous emotions and intricacies into one home, one family, one rock off the coast of mainland Europe.

It is clear-sighted without being cruel, and it truly is a grand achievement, indeed.

Ruth Rendell

The news of the iconic mystery writer's death is a cause for great sadness. After I'd gone thorugh all the Christies and the Allinghams, the Marshs and the Sayers, Rendall's work was the next natural step to take in one's reading of the great British female crime writers.

What I found to so engaging about her ouevre was that it was so clearly the bridge between previous generations, and the way forward the new ones.

I liked that her voice was the picture of detachment, which demonstrated a compassion you wouldn't find in your common or garden murder mystery.

She once said: "I think to be driven to want to kill must be such a terrible burden" - a testament to her ability to get into the minds of her heroes and antiheroes alike.

While admittedly the Chief Inspector Wexford novels were winding down in his retirement, it's hard to believe that there won't be another one coming down the pike.

I've always found it odd to think that a writer's work is finite - this may be more of a reflection on my own ageing than anything else.

Last year, a 50th anniversary edition of From Doon to Death was released and I can't think of a better way to honour Rendell's memory than to pick up a copy and read it, and by reading it, ensuring her memory lives on. RIP.

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