With her by turns staccato and poetic prose, wry wit and Pinteresque dialogues of unfinished sentences which reflect how people both fail to communicate but also do not always need to use words when they have lived together for years and shared common experiences, Ann Enright has an original angle on the well-worn theme of Irish family life.
In this case, the four Madigan children have grown up in a small west coast town close to the beautiful green road “famed in song and story” which runs across the Burren above the beach at Fanore and the Flaggy Shore – all of which can be found on Google images if the lilting names catch one’s interest enough.
The first part, “Leaving” is like a series of short stories, each from the perspective of a different sibling over a span of twenty-five years, with a final focus on Rosaleen, complex, difficult and probably too inconsistent and self-absorbed to be a “good mother”, and arousing a mixture of frustrated love and irritable resentment in her children. Ann Enright seems most authentic when writing about Ireland, which is where Rosaleen and her two daughters have allowed themselves to be “trapped”, all feeling a sense of unfulfilment to which they respond in different ways. “Impossible to please”, “Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened.”
Ann Enright’s experimental, risk-taking approach does not always work for me, but many observations and passages strike home: as Rosaleen walks along the Green Road in the dark, “a delicacy of stars above her”……….“The sea was huge for her. The light gentle and great. The fields indifferent , as she walked up the last of the hill. Bust she got a slightly sarcastic feel off the ditches, there was no other word for it – sprinkles of derision – like the countryside was laughing at her.”
Rosaleen’s two sons are more pro-active in their quest for an elusive goal, with Dan going “everywhere”, and Emmet “everywhere else” abroad. I was gripped by the strong sense of place and build-up of tension in the drama of aid-worker Emmet’s over-sensitive girlfriend Alice breaking a taboo in Mali by taking a stray dog into their home. Dan’s spell as a lapsed priest flirting with the gay art scene in New York struck me as too contrived, perhaps partly because of the arch tone of the unnamed first person narrator, a device not used elsewhere in the book, partly because it seemed overloaded with caricatures of over-sexed, drugged up young men caught up in an early ‘90s panic over Aids, all based on a woman’s second-hand research of the explicit details of being a male gay.
“Part Two”, “Coming Home” is more of a novella focused on a fraught Christmas reunion. Although, plotwise, not much happens, in terms of sudden sharp insights, comical or poignant situations and brilliant sentences one would love to have written, it is absorbing and demands to be read again.