This complex novel, longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, is set in Ireland and various global locations. It tracks the progress, spanning three decades, of a family of four siblings, and their relationship with their mother Rosaleen. Enright won the Man Booker in 2007 with The Gathering, a novel described by one reviewer as “a genuine attempt to stare down both love and death, to anatomise their pains and fears and peculiar pleasures.”
With The Green Road, she continues to probe human behaviour and emotion. Dan, Emmet, Connie and Hannah are siblings born between the 1960s and ‘70s in the west of Ireland. Their childhood experiences are riddled with family feuds, religious insularity, and their mother’s neediness. As the book opens in 1980, Dan is preparing to enter a seminary to train as a priest; Rosaleen takes to her bed in protest, but the reader is not informed whether that protest is against religion per se, or the unfulfillable expectations she has of her son. The younger children, who are already compelled to act as a “parent” to their mother, act as buffers to this situation.
The narrative then jumps forward by eleven years; Dan is living with his girlfriend in New York, but is spending more and more time cruising on the gay scene, during that historic era where many young men were dying of AIDS. This section of the novel is related by an anonymous gay narrator. The reader is given no insight as to how Dan lost his calling, or how he has ended up in such a conflicted position. Dan’s emotions appear dislocated and strangely unsympathetic towards his sexual partner Billy, who is diagnosed as HIV-positive and dies soon after:
Jessie never spoke about the call she made to Dan, how polite he was, and unsurprised. It took her years to figure it out. The feeling she had talking to him, as though Dan knew, had known all along, that there was nothing remarkable – in fact there was something almost satisfying – in the fact that Billy was dying. How did he fool her out of the news, make her feel as if she was forming sounds rather than actual words?
Emmet, meanwhile, is working in Africa with an aid agency. He has difficulties committing to Alice, another aid worker with whom he is in a relationship. His stoicism and self-denial echo what might have been Dan’s fate as a priest, but this is not made explicit within the narrative.
Connie has a well-to-do husband and two children. Her life would appear to be the most conventional of the siblings’, but we find her going alone for a cancer test and trying to cope with the possible consequences in front of her while making excuses for her husband’s absence: “‘He cares too much,’ Constance said. ‘He loves me too much.’”
Hannah, the youngest sibling, is an alcoholic. She has a male partner and a baby (who is never named in the novel). Her character is drawn with no more or less sympathy, or explanation, than the rest of the family.
The five come together at Christmas, after an announcement by Rosaleen that she intends to sell the family home. Everyone is angry, at one or all of the others. Enright isn’t taking sides in the family meltdown; she shows the emotional wounds via each of the protagonists’ behaviours. The denouement is gripping, and in a small way redemptive, but again it is the reader who is challenged to put together the missing, misfit pieces of the relationships presented.
Enright’s skill is to tell you just enough to try to draw some conclusions about what it is you are seeing; “through a glass darkly” might describe her technique. The experience of reading the characters in her work is rather like getting to know a real-life individual. You never fill in all the gaps.