Hegel believed that happiness was largely confined to the private life, a view that would scarcely survive a reading of the modern novel. A lot of fiction since the early 20th century takes it for granted that families will be dysfunctional, individual lives unfulfilled and relationships cockpits of gladiatorial combat. Almost all the characters in Anne Enright’s superb new novel are spiritually damaged in one way or another, but we are not told exactly how they landed up like this, and it would seem churlish to inquire. Do you end up an alcoholic, like one of the characters here, because you have been driven to the bottle by an exasperating mother, or is lying drunk and bleeding on the kitchen floor just the way of the world? Is it an ontological truth that families are bunches of people who get on each other’s nerves? Perhaps failure and frustration are synonymous with being alive, which is not a viewpoint one can imagine Jane Austen or Walter Scott adopting. ‘I look at him,’ the narrator of Enright’s earlier novel The Gathering remarks of her husband, ‘a big, sexy streak of misery, with his face stuck in a glass of obscure Scotch, as he traces the watermark of failure that runs through his life, that is there on every page.’
For writers like Fielding and Dickens, cheerfulness is quite as real as gloom, which isn’t the case with Sebald or Graham Greene. Suffering for them is fundamental in a way that bliss can’t be, and certainly easier to knock a story out of. For the modern age, there is, many would say, something phony about the very idea of happiness. Even the word has a naff ring to it, redolent of men in multicoloured jackets and revolving bow ties cavorting at the end of piers. ‘Contentment’, with its inescapable overtones of munching grass, isn’t much of an improvement, while ‘ecstasy’ comes in the shape of tablets.
As far as misery goes, it is modernism that made the difference. If the typical modernist novel is more realistic than realism, that is partly because it refuses to edify its readers with a happy ending. Since the dispirited can easily tip over into the disaffected, this, politically speaking, is not entirely prudent. Despondency, so the Victorians believed, is potentially subversive, and it is part of the function of classical realism to keep it at bay. As with all fantasy, from a Freudian viewpoint its task is to rectify the defects of reality, furnishing the hero after his tribulations with a comely spouse and a sizeable landed estate. Modernism, which springs from an era of genocide and global warfare, rebuffs such anodyne solutions, but only because it is as averse to utopia as it is to false consciousness. Anyone out to scandalise the literary establishment should come up with an outlandishly avant-garde piece of fiction in which all the characters are remorselessly chirpy all the time. In defiance of Tolstoy’s claim that all happy families are happy in the same way, there would be a myriad modes of euphoria on display, while glumness would be unmasked as brittle, modish and self-indulgent. The only problem is that no publisher would touch it.
Another Hegelian aesthetic which most modernism ditched was the kind of art in which personal relationships reflect deeper social forces. As the public sphere came to seem icily remote from everyday lives, fiction took a turn towards the private. Sexuality and subjectivity moved centre stage – momentous topics by any measure, but in the realist tradition interwoven with social and political existence rather than an alternative to it. A politically becalmed West can look to sex for something of the drama and intensity it might otherwise find in wars and revolutions. The more bland and boring Western politics become, the steamier publishers’ lists grow. In contrast to the populous public realms of Balzac and Thomas Mann, not to speak of the postcolonial novel, a large swathe of fiction has become privatised and parochial, more suburban than cosmopolitan (though The Green Road ranges from Munster to New York, Mali to Toronto). Novels are more likely to be about adultery than the invasion of Iraq. Society may stretch no further than the confines of the family, with its sick fantasies and monstrous secrets, its squalid betrayals and mind-wrenching boredom. There is a host of psychically challenged families in classical Irish fiction, from Tristram Shandy and Castle Rackrent to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, yet the concerns of these works range far beyond the domestic. The novel is the most capacious, anarchic of literary genres, which makes these self-imposed restrictions all the more of a pity. It is not a question of being prescriptive: Madame Bovary is all about adultery, and there are plenty of tedious political tracts thinly disguised as high art. It is rather a matter of noting that though novels, unlike elegy or pastoral, can be about anything you want, much contemporary writing fails to exploit this freedom.
The Green Road sketches in some lightweight social context. For a time we are in Celtic Tiger terrain, in which your cleaner is more likely to be from Ulan Bator than Dublin’s Northside, and pubs that used to smell of wet wool and old men are now as wreathed with exotic scents exuded by well-groomed young professionals as an airport duty free. At the centre of the story, however, true to the bent of modern fiction, is the private sphere of the Madigan menage, a rather uppity West of Ireland family whose members have either observed that most revered of native Irish customs – getting out of the place as soon as they can – or stayed at home to annoy each other. The problem for those who have not bought an air ticket is that they can neither escape from home nor feel at home there. At the centre of this domain is Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigans, a figure who in less dexterous authorial hands could lapse into a stage-Irish mother, inordinately eager to sit by herself in the dark, but who is here brought magnificently to life. From the workaday stuff of this cantankerous, self-pitying, endlessly demanding woman, Enright plucks a character of potentially tragic stature who loves her children but sourly resents their absence, wants them by her side but grows captious and curmudgeonly as soon as they cross the threshold. ‘They had all left her,’ she reflects, with a wonderful mixture of spite and self-pity. ‘They deserved no better.’ ‘There was something out of kilter with his mother’s happiness,’ her son Emmet reflects, ‘as though a light had been switched on by a passing stranger, and left to illuminate an empty room.’
Rosaleen, who feels that Emmet blames her for the fact that his father died of cancer, has another son, Dan, whose relationship with her is equally turbulent; a daughter, Hanna, who she suspects was premenstrual from the day she was born (Hanna herself maintains she had postnatal depression in the womb); and another daughter, Constance, whose rolls of fat in the most unpredictable places make her look like an old woman and as such constitute an insulting rebuff to the maternal care devoted to rearing her. They are a family of small hearts, modest-size ambitions and scant resources.
If the novel’s treatment of Rosaleen manages to conjure a convincing character out of a potential stereotype, it also achieves a remarkably skilful balance between its distaste for this cross-grained old woman and its complex sympathy with her plight. In this, it reflects in its own way the ambivalence of her concerned, infuriated children, a conflict of emotions which Rosaleen fully reciprocates. When she makes her bid for freedom at the end of the book, crawling through the countryside in the pitch dark on hands and knees, she takes her cue from her offspring at the same time as putting the fear of God into them. As someone who drives around the countryside switching on the windscreen wipers every time she wants to turn left, she finds it hard to attend to things: ‘You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare.’ This solitary, self-lacerating, deviously histrionic woman, who hates her children and hungers for them, yearns for their touch and hankers to be shot of their importunity, is full of begrudgeries that are at once real and imaginary, and the novel itself is neither taken in by her nor in the least inclined to scoff. It understands well enough how spiked hopes and festering animosities can make one thoroughly disagreeable.
Enright’s sensibility is of the materialist sort, alert to smells and fluids, bones and skin, varying textures of weather, shifting shades of light and the physical impact of voices. In Africa, the odour of starvation has ‘a chemical edge to it, like walking past the hairdresser’s at home’. Around the Madigans’ home, ‘it was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.’ Constance walks ‘through the spottings of rain, pulling the sky into her lungs. Sipping at the world.’ Elsewhere in the book, she can be heard weeping ‘like a heifer stuck on a barbed wire fence’. A sick man ‘dribbled noise’, while Hanna can feel the voice of an actor ‘like something pushing against [her] in the darkness’.
These sensations are focused above all on the body. Recalling being roughly deflowered in the back of a car (‘when [she] threw up afterwards, it came out blue’), Constance remembers her body at the time as ‘such a stupid place: when her skin was the most intelligent thing about her, for knowing how to blush, and she could not even name herself below the waist’. Testing herself for breast cancer, her fingertips light upon ‘a small, slippery mass like a piece of gristle, that moved around and did not answer her touch. This was the thing to look for: a part of you that could not feel. Just a tiny part. And the reason it could not feel was that it was not you.’
It is sickness that links several of the book’s otherwise disjointed episodes. Beset by various psychosomatic ailments, Rosaleen takes to her bed for no very palpable reason, assuming what Dan calls the ‘horizontal solution’, while Hanna runs off for palliatives to her uncle, a pharmacist. The family trade in illness as well as suffering from it. In the most dramatic of narrative disjunctions, we shift from this rural setting to the Aids-ravaged New York of 1991, where Dan, now a spoiled priest, is exploring his gay proclivities while protesting his straightness. The climate of the times is evoked with brutal brilliance: mothers on the subway who spot your purple bruises and snatch up their children, your neighbours using a Kleenex to press the elevator button, everyone’s address book scored through with Wite-Out, every name of the dead dragging its own tiny silence after it. ‘We were putting the phone down on each other all over New York, gently, we were extricating ourselves.’ Dan and a boyfriend end up ‘kissing up against a chain link fence, in a deserted lot by the East River, hands sliding in each other’s come, waiting to be knifed by a passer-by’. It is a far cry from Boolavaun.
Hanna’s sickness is a matter of booze rather than sex. She is the one we see lying in her kitchen after a drunken fall, her cheek fastened to the floor with congealed blood. Things between her and her partner are not as cordial as they might be. ‘He told her to pick her knickers up off the stairs, in a tone of great disgust. Or he wanted to shag her on the stairs. One or the other. Sometimes both. It was as if he couldn’t make up his mind.’ The younger brother, Emmet, rings a change on the Madigans’ domestic culture by curing illness rather than succumbing to it. He works as a doctor in the developing world, a secular version of the missionary who leaves Ireland to baptise pagans rather than dig canals. He has a shaking in his hands which he thinks at first is giardiasis but which turns out to be his life falling apart, knees which through exposure to tropical heat look about sixty years older than his belly, and an African servant whose mobile phone has a ringtone which sounds like a woman having an orgasm. He and his partner, Alice, adopt a sick dog, and their relationship dies along with the dog itself. Enright never quite succeeds in realising this vaguely dissatisfied figure as sharply as she does the womenfolk. Rosaleen reflects that Emmet is a hard man to pin down, and his author may have something of the same problem, rather as she does with his brother. Dan is meant to have a disfiguring blankness about him, but it isn’t clear how much of this results from the novel’s failure to bring him fully into focus. In fact it isn’t clear that the book really grasps the inner workings of either of its leading male characters.
The prose style of The Green Road is less formal, more quirkily inventive, than that of Enright’s last novel, The Forgotten Waltz. She has a sharp eye for the slightly offbeat image, one which blends oddness and ordinariness so that everyday objects and actions are lit up for a moment from an estranging angle. Emmet ‘won [Hanna’s] tears from her, pulled them out of her face, hot and sore, and ran off with them, exulting’. When Constance’s pelvis opens to give birth, ‘there was a pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn.’
As with much Irish writing, The Green Road’s subdued wit is agreeably at odds with its grim subject matter. It turns out to be a mistake for Dan to tell his boyfriend Ludo that he loves him, ‘because Ludo immediately wanted to open the last bottle of Pommery and suck him off and get married’. Another of Dan’s gay friends ‘would be, for the rest of his life, a guy more cruising than cruised’. When Constance was young, her women friends ‘went through the men they met like the world was on sale and they were a rail of clothes’. Emmet’s partner’s childish handwriting, with its ‘little circles over the i’s and sticky-out puppy tongues where the full stop should be … made him feel like a child molester’. When Rosaleen flees into the wilderness on Christmas Day, her children round up all the recovering alcoholics they can lay their hands on to form a search party, since they are the only ones who will be sober.
Though misery bulks large in the book, it isn’t unmodified. Rosaleen loved her dead husband, Pat, and Constance, for all her distaste for herself and her rolls of fat, delights in her children. In the novel’s most breathtaking image,
she drifted against the softness of [her son’s] skin and the thickness of his unwashed curls. She was like some sea creature among the kelp, grazing the side of her face against his older brother, the moving, small bones of his white shoulder, the sweaty insides of his hands paddling against her as she turned and passed, and pulled herself down into the perfumed depths of Shauna’s red hair.
There are some regenerative touches in the book’s final pages, hinted at in its title, as Emmet feels his life reopening. Dan edges as close to love as his constricted heart will allow him, the Madigans experience themselves for once as a cohesive force and Rosaleen is transfigured by her adventure. There are signs that in future she will attend to things more closely, which would involve rather more than sorting out her indicator from her windscreen wipers. She needs the vigilance to detail of the author herself, for whom even a wastepaper basket can be allotted a walk-on part: ‘The bin was made of pale wood, with a faint and open grain. It was always empty when he arrived. Expectant. The wastepaper basket was far too beautiful. The air inside it was the saddest air.’ Perhaps none of this renewal will last. We are, after all, in the realm of modern fiction. Yet it is brave to end a novel on such a note, even if none of the characters is quite what one might describe as remorselessly chirpy.