Anne Enright’s Green Path
Ann Enright’s The Green Road is eventually a family saga, but its characters cover a large part of the world before joining forces on the essence of home events. But this microcosm that is Madigan’s birthright becomes by association into something much broader, not just a mirror of contemporary Irish society, but also linked to some of the most important themes that characterize our time.
Philip Larkin’s poem “This is the Verse” comes to mind, not only because of its description of the role that moms and dads play in family life, but for two other reasons as well. First, its title refers to readings in the church, to verses that may be biblical and secular. In contemporary Ireland, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, once unquestionably and unquestionably served, once primordial, has diminished. It may not have diminished as a source of guilt and underlying neurosis as much as is recognized by society at large. But things have certainly changed. Second, Larkin’s poem says goodbye with the instruction “And don’t have children yourself.” Fortunately for the plot of The Green Road, Ann Enright makes her matriarch, Rosaleen Madigan, turn a deaf ear to such advice, or perhaps she simply never listened to this command. She had four and they shared the family life that was created for them, they went their separate and individual ways, and then returned, long after their father died to share a Christmas together.
We first meet Rosaleen undergoing a hospital procedure, a biopsy of something that has turned up. His years advance and he feels the need to change. Maybe he should sell the house … He reflects on the past, present and future and hopes to see his children, now scattered in a class all over the world. At one stage, Dan was destined for the priesthood, a life on missions, ministering human kindness to those in need. He broke up with his girlfriend, but never took the route that would have led to Holy Orders, thus unknowingly leaving global charitable acts to a brother, who acted in an official capacity.
What happens to these children is crucial to the plot of the book. From their diverse lives and far away places they return to the family home for a Christmas gathering. Now there are children, grandchildren of Rosaleen, children of her own children, doubly corrupt, perhaps, in Larkin’s terms. There are also partners. There is alcohol. There are stagnant races. There are the hopes and aspirations of modern people involved in a modern world that seems to have left Rosaleen behind, now alone in her county Clare home that is filled with memories. Among her children, there are drinking problems, failed relationships, and a lot of sex. They are a pretty normal lot, if normalcy applies to someone in particular.
“And half in the throat of the other” is the last line of one in the particular stanza of “this is the verse” by Philip Larkin. But when the Madigans come together for their community holiday celebration, it’s the other half that shines, the half that Larkin didn’t describe. At least on the surface …
Despite the tension caused by difference in economic status, the need to publicize public happiness through possessions, declining Catholicism, and known but unannounced sexual preferences that a generation earlier would have produced public condemnation, the brothers cooperate to through the festivities and compete through interests as Rosaleen, their enduring Mother, pursues the sale of the family home. It’s worth a lot, especially in Ireland today, where people can carry around four hundred euros in their wallet for small change. And so siblings compete, differ, recognize the supremacy of their mother’s needs, but cannot escape the pressures of their own lives or the need to find solutions to the problems they have dreamed of. And so together they prepare their Christmas dinner, and most of the work falls to the brother who always carries the load.
The Green Path of the title refers to a journey that Rosaleen undertakes without warning, causing panic among those left behind. It does not go very far, but it rediscovers an unpaved track with old houses, yes, in ruins, nearby. All this, this mess of family life, must have happened before, to other families in the past, and will be repeated in the future with different actors, in different places, with different scripts. It is who we are and, despite what Philip Larkin may think, we are all part of the process, because if we weren’t, there would be no one to write the verse. And we should all be grateful that Anne Enright has the vision and skill to create this moving and surprising story.