Earlier this year, Anne Enright was named Ireland’s first Laureate for Fiction. American readers need look no further than her absorbing new novel, “The Green Road,” to understand why she was the perfect choice. Like her 2007 Man Booker Prize-winning “The Gathering,” the new book deftly handles an ensemble cast of family members, although this time it’s the fraught ritual of Christmas rather than a funeral that brings them together. And like “The Forgotten Waltz,” its immediate predecessor, “The Green Road” deals with the dislocations, monetary and spiritual, of the Celtic Tiger boom years. This story, however, is more expansive and emotionally satisfying.
The Madigans hail from the Atlantic-carved coast of West Clare. The shaky matriarch of the family is Rosaleen. Her late father’s pharmacy, Considine’s Medical Hall, now run by her brother, makes an early appearance (in the early 1980s) and sets up the novel’s concern with disease and dis-ease. The preoccupation begins with Rosaleen herself: “The thing that was wrong with her,” she believes, “was not the sort of thing you could just see with a machine.”
Three of Rosaleen’s four children make, or try to make, lives away from Ardeevin, the family homestead. Enright notes in her acknowledgments that “the green road of the title is a real road that runs through the Burren [a rocky landscape that harbors rare flora] in County Clare,” but it’s also a metaphor for the international dimension of Ireland, a small country whose reality extends far beyond its shores.
While overburdened eldest daughter Constance stays uneasily close to home, her younger sister Hanna heads for Dublin’s theatrical world and domestic anguish. Their brothers range farther. In New York, Dan struggles to accept his homosexuality and to replace the gravitas of his lost priestly vocation. Working for nongovernmental organizations in Asia and Africa, his brother Emmet is a kind of postmodern missionary and just as restless as the other siblings. We get a sense that no matter how far the Madigans go down that green road, they never leave the Hall; they are always seeking a balm.
In the novel’s second half, set in 2005, they bring their “small lives” and major dissatisfactions home for the holidays. Enright’s writing goes into high gear. In scene after finely tuned scene, we witness a family and a society dancing close to a precipice: “It was 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve and the supermarket was like the Apocalypse, people grabbing without looking, and things fallen in the aisles.”
As things fall apart, can the Madigan family — as was vainly hoped for the Irish economy not long after 2005 — engineer a soft landing? Travel this green and abundant road to find out.
Robert Cremins teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.
THE GREEN ROAD
By: Anne Enright.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 310 pages, $26.95.