Friday, September 4, 2015

Man Booker Longlist Review #4: The Green Road

Anne Enright's latest novel, The Green Road, is actually the sixth book on the Man Booker longlist that I have read, but the fourth to be reviewed.

Maybe this is because, unlike The Fishermen and The Year of the Runaways (reviews pending), I found this book not too difficult to either read or reach a conclusion about. That's not because it's lacking in complexity, but because the nature of its complexity is one that I can grip to more eaily than the mythic, scatological strangeness of The Fishermen or the mournful grimness of Runaways. Because, essentially, The Green Road is another story about family, and how it makes and breaks us - a slyer, more dysfunctional vision than Anne Tyler's gentle A Spool of Blue Thread, but nonetheless not a hopeless, helpless picture either.

The Green Road is the story of the Madigan family - to be more precise, it's the story of Rosaleen Considine Madigan and her four children, Constance, Dan, Emmet and Hanna. Rosaleen's husband, Pat, is present in the early part of the novel, but is never really a protagonist, and has died by about the quarter-way mark, thereafter only appearing as a symbolic figure in memory.

Rosaleen is a complicated, unlikeable, woman, with decided narcissistic tendencies and a parenting style that made me pale. Does she love her children? Yes. No. Some of them. Sometimes. Does she wound and damage them? Continually, and in ways that shape their adult lives. The book opens with her sustained hissy fit at Dan's announcement that he is going to train to be a priest - it literally is all about her, and her derailed expectations of favoured grandchildren from her favourite child, in her mind.

Dan's trajectory, which is taken up next in a beautifully described, achingly sad study of gay male New York culture in the 1980-90s era, both echoes and resiles against his mother's touch on his life, as Dan (who never did become a priest) finds his way painfully to his identity as a gay man. The context - of HIV diagnoses, illnesses and death - is never far from the forefront in this passage. Enright's unusual narrative decision to use not Dan himself, but one of his acquaintances, Greg, as the intimate third-person focus in this passage works extremely well.

Enright's consummate skill is on display as she head-hops from Dan's story back to Constance, the married-young, mother-of-three, carer-daughter left behind in Ireland. In many ways, Constance - in her late 30s / early 40s for most of the book's action - is the character that resonated most with me. Enright chooses a smaller, more intimate lens to unpick her story - one that's chillingly and ominously real for most people in their mid-life - as she follows Constance to a large public hospital to have testing done on a breast lump. Constance's fears and hopes are painfully present in this process, and at the very end of the book, Enright puts a nasty sting in the tail for poor put-upon Constance. (That's one of the reasons I describe this book as "sly" - it allows the reader to relax before sucker-punching you, more than once).

Emmet, the emotionally twisted, perennially enraged social justice warrior / aid worker, is probably the least accessible of the main characters, and I think this is by intent. I get a sense of faint amusement from the text, as if Enright is enjoying subverting what readers think they *should* feel - it feels weird that Emmet, who's actually dedicating his life to poverty relief and practical aid work in some of the poorest countries on earth, should be so much less sympathetic than hedontistic, selfish Dan, workaday Constance or even the feckless alcoholic Hanna. (He is not, however, less sympathetic than Rosaleen). His portion of the head-hop was the least engaging in many ways, and felt much more distant to me than did the other three.

Hanna, the family's baby, is an unmitigated mess, and in her the traces of maternal damage are easiest to see. Her untreated PPD and dangerous alcoholism both wracked me with sympathy and made my skin crawl for her care (or lack of) her infant son. Hanna's scars are out where everyone can see them, but that doesn't make her the only one carrying them.

At the end, though, this is only partially a story about individuals - it's really a story about a family, hairy and sometimes unpleasant and still bound, to their mother and each other, in ways none of them can really escape. It's staggeringly well-written - I would expect nothing less from Enright, one of the best Irish novellists of the last 50 years - and it's an insightful, lingering book, that stays with you in unexpected ways.

Is it a Booker winner? Maybe, maybe. It's certainly as good as any of the other six I've read, and better than at least two of them. I'll go out on a limb and say it will shortlist, but what happens past that is anyone's guess.

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