Tag Archives: families

The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 for The Gathering. She has since been regarded as one of the foremost Irish writers of our time. The Forgotten Waltz was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction (as it was called in 2012). The Green Road was published last year. It did well – Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Irish Novel of the Year, Costa Novel Award short list and choice of the year for several people. It has also gained a few blog endorsements. I read one review, however, which dismissed the novel as clichéd. While some of the situations may be very familiar in Irish history (and life), Anne Enright’s treatment is anything but a cliché. Here’s why.

231 Gr Rd cover

The story and structure of the novel

Rosaleen Madigan lives in County Clare. By 2005 her four children have grown up and away: Hanna is an alcoholic failed actress with post-natal depression; Constance stayed, married a local man who makes a good living in the Irish building boom of the early 2000s; Emmet works for NGOs to save lives in the developing world; Dan went to be a priest and decided he was gay and lives in Toronto.

In part one we see the family members in a number of different episodes, distant from each other and from their parents: Hanna as a child in 1980; Dan in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991; Constance having a cancer check in 1997; Emmet in Mali breaking up with yet another lover in 2002. Their separate lives make their connections to each other tenuous. By the end of the first section the reader knows much more about the lives of the four Madigan children than their family members ever will.

In the second part, narrated in one timeframe, 2005, they are together in County Clare. Rosaleen, now widowed, has summoned her children to a Christmas reunion. None of the four bring partners or children except Constance who lives locally and does much of the fetching and carrying and organising. Their separation is emphasised by the festivities. Rosaleen adds to the discomfort when she goes missing for a while on a walk in the darkness, and the dramas continue even after they find her. No much is resolved by the conclusion.

Themes

The novel is concerned with connections and absence of connections within families; the pull of the past, relatives, place, personal histories and myths; how individuals and families face challenges; compassion for the difficulties of others; the change of parental role from providing care to neediness. ‘It’s about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.’ (LRB video see below)

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

Rosaleen’s disappearance highlights how she and the landscape are the only connections between the family members, and they are not that strong. Her decision to sell the family home, Ardeevin, creates tensions. She has reminded her children that they have little invested in their past. They are shocked by the prospect of Rosaleen moving, but then realise that it makes no difference, except for Constance with whom she threatens to move in.

The writing

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright is a compelling writer. She has referred to ‘the pleasure of the sentence’. I found the section on New York and the gay community unbearably sad.

The story is small, undramatic, although individual episodes in the first part have plenty of action. As Emmet observes, they live ‘small lives’. Not much happens to the family except that Rosaleen goes missing. But within the small spaces a great deal is revealed about families and relationships. Here are some examples.

Emmet prepares for the reunion in his house in Dublin. He says goodbye to his Dutch girlfriend and then waits for Hanna to arrive for their journey to Ardeevin.

Then he faced back into the horrors of the Madigans – their small hearts (his own was not entirely huge) and the small lives they put themselves through. Emmet closed his eyes and tilted his face up, and there she was: his mother, down in the kitchen in Ardeevin. Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog.

Mother.

His stupid sister late, as ever. (210)

Emmet’s awareness does not help him in his relationships with women. His compassion is reserved for those in the countries he works in.

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Constance, of course Constance, meets Dan at Shannon Airport and as they drive to Ardeevin he looks out of the window of her Lexus.

As they travelled towards home, the landscape accumulated in Dan like a silt of meaning that was disturbed by the line of the hedgerow or the sight of winter trees along a ridge. All at once it was familiar. He knew this place. It was a secret he carried inside himself; a map of things he had known and lost, these half glimpsed houses and stone walls, the fields of solid green. (203)

The image of the ‘silt of meaning’ carried around from childhood is a powerful one. Many of the aspects of childhood in this family are silted up. The landscape runs through the novel, surfacing every now and again – Constance’s first trip to the clinic, Rosaleen’s walk in darkness, and Dan’s experience on arrival. The town in which Rosaleen lives is never named ‘to give a sense of elsewhere’ to the landscape. The Green Road that gives the novel its title is exists.

The description of Constance’s pre-Christmas shopping trip is terrifying. The excess of buying, the volume of stuff, the return for yet more, all conveyed in calm prose, a huge list – it is powerful a statement of Constance’s life and values.

Anne Enright seems to be saying that life is hard; relationships, especially those you are born into, but others you take on, they are difficult however you choose to live your life.

That mean-spirited blog review which suggested The Green Road is clichéd and Anne Enright over-rated made me look more closely at her skill. While the outline of the characters may be clichéd her skill is to capture, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, the silences and shifts between people.

The Green Road by Anne Enright, published in 2015 by Vintage 310 pp

Related

The books that I loved in 2015 by James Wood in the New Yorker, 4th January 2016.

LRB video 9 minutes, from which Anne Enright’s quotations are taken.

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s novels gives me the same feeling as when I hear Knoxville, Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. Both are very American and strongly evocative of ordinary urban life. As with Barber’s piece it is easy to get into a novel by Anne Tyler, but as you progress you are challenged. She presents you with surprises and with people acting like real people – not like stereotyped heroes and heroines. They have foibles, grief, whims, traits that make them recognisable and interesting.

186 Spool coverA Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel and continues her exploration of families. She has said she wants to know ‘how they grate along’ because people are forced together in families. In this novel she explores how families define themselves, creating their versions of themselves and how this changes over time.

The story

Set in Baltimore again, A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshanks and their four children. We meet Red (a builder) and Abby (a social worker and former hippy) in 1994 and follow them into old age where their children must respond to their ageing. The story shifts in Part Two to focus on the previous generation of Whitshanks and how they came to Baltimore. It emerges that the origins of both Junior and Linnie are obscured from their children and grandchildren. It is not clear whether they were even married.

In A Spool of Blue Thread Abby is a central figure. She is prone to invite lame ducks to a meal and forget about the invitation. She is generous and has opened her family to non-blood relatives.

Central to the story is the house that Junior Whitshank built and bought off its first owner, then passed to Red, becoming the home of the second generation.

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like. (57)

The story ends as the house is emptied and the third generation move away from its orbit.

Why read A Spool of Blue Thread?

In every novel Anne Tyler creates characters of great charm and frustration. Who can forget the flawed Macon in The Accidental Tourist. He writes travel books and hates travel. His family store their groceries alphabetically. These are not romantic heroes and heroines and yet they love, suffer and make their lives as all of us do.

Anne Tyler has said that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

The novel explores how families shape themselves. Here are some of the ways in which the Whitshanks do it:

  • Through their responses to the wayward child, Denny, who sabotages much family activity, absents himself from the family, flits back occasionally, tells them nothing of his life.
  • The family’s retold two myths – how the house came to be in the possession of the Whitshanks and how Red’s sister’s dishonestly and manipulatively campaigned to marry a rich man.
  • What the members of the family tell each other and what they withhold.
  • How the family respond to ageing parents, and the assumptions they make about their need for care and about who should do this and how.
  • The resentful relationships between the siblings and how these are only revealed in crises.
  • How the family’s rituals define them, for example their annual holiday at the Beach and Christmas.
  • How they cope and don’t cope when they are all squashed together in the house.
  • How they respond to the death of one of the family.

Amanda the lawyer gives her brother Denny a piece of her mind on one occasion, and we learn a truth about this wayward son. She spoke on the phone to him, in front of their mother, Abby.

“But do you know something, Denny? Don’t count on me to take you in, because I’m angry, I’m angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad’s thirtieth anniversary and thirty-fifth and Jeannine’s baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well. But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.”

She stopped speaking. Denny said something.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m fine. How have you been?” (32-33)

The scene shifts and the next paragraph beings: So Denny came home. The humour, letting us down after one of the most emotional scenes, and the delivery of the home truth to Abby is typical of Anne Tyler’s writing, and of how she shows the relationships in this family.

There is no great denouement although Denny appears to be making a bid for a better life in the final scenes. We have been privileged to witness a family, any family, make its way through difficult times, from the Depression to the present day, and how each family member plays a part in shaping and defining the family while also being constrained by the collective ideas they hold.

And the reader has witnessed this through the eyes of a writer with great charm and humour and a gift for the detail. There is a link to Knoxville in the prominent role of the porch seat in the novel and which you can hear swinging gently at the opening of Barber’s piece.

Reading Anne Tyler

I have read (or reread) a novel by Anne Tyler every two years, my reading record shows.

Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass
(2009)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)

Anne Tyler's novels on my bookshelves

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (2015) Chatto & Windus 358 pp

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

My copy was a gift from Kim, through her blog Reading Matters. Many thanks to Kim, I enjoyed it as I knew I would! The link takes you to her review.

 

Related posts:

An Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Shortlisted for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2015

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’

 

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews