Novelist Anne Enright poses at an Auckland writers' festival. Photo: Sandra Mu/Getty Images
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Anne Enright's The Green Road is a devastating, savage novel about home

In Rosaleen Madigan, Enright has created a mater dolorosa without rival in the annals of Irish mothers.

The Green Road
Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape, 310pp, £16.99

“I am,” Samuel Beckett once wrote of his mother, “what her savage loving has made me.” His observation might serve as the epigraph to Anne Enright’s new novel, a family romance that begins with Rosaleen Madigan taking to her bed for two weeks after her favourite son, Dan, reveals that he wants to join the priesthood. The Madigans are eating Sunday lunch when he makes his announcement: bacon and cabbage with white sauce and carrots, the green, white and orange lying on their plates “like the Irish flag”.

Dan’s bombshell, the first of a series of controlled explosions, takes place in 1980. We do not see the Madigans together again until 2005 when, in the book’s second half, they reconvene in County Clare for a final Christmas before Rosaleen sells her house in order to divide the spoils. On this occasion, Dan, “a raging blank of a human being”, announces that he is engaged to his Canadian boyfriend.

The lives of the Madigans in the 25 years between 1980 and 2005 unfold in sinuous chapters of homoeopathic intensity. After dropping out of the priesthood, Dan goes to New York where, one by one, his friends die from Aids; his awakening sexuality is described with unnerving brilliance. His chilly brother, Emmet, works for a charity in Africa before returning to a semi-detached on the wrong side of Dublin, while their ­sisters never leave Ireland. Hanna, the youngest, is a disappointed actress and Constance an overweight housewife and mother.

Rosaleen, who believes that a woman should be interesting, “keeps her figure and always listens to the news”. She is less interested, however, in the wider world than in what happens in County Clare, even though nothing happens in County Clare; Rosaleen “saw to that, too”. For Emmet, Ireland is like “living in a hole in the ground”, but the boom has turned the country into the Celtic Tiger, a land of BMWs, handbags and Camembert. The contents of Constance’s Christmas shopping trolley are a depressing summation of an economy on a bender. Enjoying the euro and the new, tarmacked roads, Constance “loved to drive. It was the perfect excuse. For what, she did not know.”

Each of the chapters is a short story in which we are given a snapshot of the Madigans. After first meeting Hanna as a child, we are reintroduced to her as a 37-year-old mother, lying in a drunken heap in a pool of her own blood. She has fallen and cracked her head on the kitchen floor, although this is not immediately obvious. Hanna has post-natal depression; her baby boy is a “fight they wrapped in a cloth” and she wonders what it was she had wanted “before she had wanted a drink”. We catch up with Emmet in 2002 when he is living in Mali with his saintly girlfriend, Alice, who adopts a street dog with a cyst on its eye. Alice loves the dog, Mitch, because she loves all suffering things and because dogs “desperately want to belong” but Emmet loves nothing. Enright inhabits Mitch’s canine consciousness with her usual certainty: this state of longing, we now know, is how it feels to be a West African street dog. When Mitch is poisoned, Alice packs her bags and leaves.

The everyday unhappiness of each of the siblings is painfully well realised but in Rosaleen Madigan Enright has created a mater dolorosa without rival in the annals of Irish mothers. When Hanna thinks about Rosa­leen, “It’s like there’s some secret. But there just isn’t.” And we know what she means. A monster of egocentricity, Rosaleen is as powerful as the Pope and as seductive as a poet. A foolish, fond old woman (references to King Lear are scattered throughout), ­Rosaleen loses her sanity when she sells her house and Constance refuses to take her in. She crawls through the night on the green road, the Aran Islands to her left and the Connemara mountains far beyond.

Anne Enright is a novelist of fearless ­superiority whose genius is maddeningly hard to pin down. In a puff on the back of the book, Colm Tóibín compares the sharpness of her style to that of Joan Didion, the “scope of her understanding” to Alice Munro’s and her “vision of Ireland” to that of Edna O’Brien, but ganging her up with the women is heading in the wrong direction. Enright epitomises what Virginia Woolf described as the “type of the androgynous”. I know of no other writer so free from the fetters of gender. Enright is a ­shape-shifter who gets into the nerve centres of her creations; the power of her prose lies in its absence of ego. The Green Road is a devastating novel about home and how savage a place it can be. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.