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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Commons Confidential: Money for old Gove

Backstabbing Boris, a doctored doctorate, and when private schools come to Parliament.

Treachery is proving profitable for Michael Gove since his backstabbing of Boris Johnson led to the victim being named Foreign Sec and the knifeman carved out of Theresa May’s cabinet. The former injustice secretary was overheard giving it the big “I am” in the Lords café bar by my snout and boasting that he’ll trouser £300,000 on the political sidelines. I note a £150,000 Times column and £17,500 HarperCollins book deal have been duly registered. Speaking engagements, he confided to the Tory peer Simone Finn, will be equally lucrative.

Gove is polite (always says hello and smiles at me despite what I write) but it was insensitive to talk money when his companion was moaning. Finn, a Cameron crony, whined that she had been sacked as a spad and so is out of pocket. Perhaps he could lend her a tenner. And I do hope Mickey isn’t passing himself off as an “expert” to coin it.

While Nigel Farage’s successor-but-one Paul “Dr Nutty” Nuttall protests that he never doctored a CV with an invented university PhD, Ukip’s ritzy nonpareil continues to enjoy the high life. My informant spied Farage, the self-appointed people’s chief revolter, relaxing in first class on a British Airways flight from New York to Blighty. Drinking three types of champagne doesn’t come cheap at £8,000 one-way, so either the Brexit elitist is earning big bucks or he has found a sugar daddy. Nowt’s too good for the Quitters, eh?

Labour’s youngest MP, Lou Haigh, was popular in a Justice for Colombia delegation to monitor the Northern Ireland-inspired peace process there. At Normandia prison in Chiquinquira, after a five-hour drive to see Farc guerrillas cleared for release, inmates pushed past the British male trade unionists to greet the 29-year-old Sheffield Heeley tribune. What a change from parliament, where it is women who are treated as if they’re wearing Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks.

The kowtowing is catching up with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP party animal and onetime-Tory-turned-Labour. Better late than never, I hear, she delivered a masterclass in toadying to the Chinese at a Ditchley Park conflab. Ahmed-Grovel MP avoided discussion of human rights abuses and made much instead of the joys of Scotch whisky to Beijing, and Scotland as a gateway to the UK. I trust she kept her sycophancy secret from SNP colleagues jostling in parliament a short while back for photographs with Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

John Bercow is concerned that private schools dominate visits to parliament. So a bit like the Commons chamber, where 32 per cent of MPs (48 per cent of Tories) come from establishments that teach 7 per cent of pupils in the UK. 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump