[This is a journal in four sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
31 May 2015
First three chapters of Part 1 – Leaving
I suspect that in Part 1, Enright is getting in the back-story for Part 2. Hanna (Co. Clare, 1980) centres on an errand to the local chemist’s that a girl has to run for her hypochondriac mother. Dan (New York, 1991) is about Hanna’s brother, the one whose announcement of his decision to train for the priesthood in Hanna’s chapter sends their mother to bed for two weeks. By 1991 he is a ‘spoilt priest’ experimenting with his own sexuality at the peak of the Aids epidemic. Constance (Co. Limerick, 1997) is about another sister’s hospital appointment to check out a lump in her breast. They are all members of the Madigan family and, as we follow them for anything between maybe an hour and much longer, a picture is built up of each of their lives and of the upbringing that helped to make them what they are.
Enright might have breaks of up to eleven years in the timeline, and she might make minor tweaks to the narrative style from chapter to chapter – I’ll come back to those – but there is no sense of disruption or fragmentation. She is at the top of her game. Hanna’s story tells us all we need to know not only about the prejudices and rivalries of a backward little town in the west of Ireland, but also about the ways that family members cope with a mother who seems to be far more interested in herself than in them. The third-person narrative, in language that would be familiar to a ten-year-old who has led a painfully sheltered life, mixes the story of her trip to the chemist – inevitably, he’s her uncle – with flashbacks to her brother’s announcement during his Easter university vacation. Dan, it seems, is as single-mindedly self-centred as their mother. The other brother, Emmet, is sarcastic about the decision, but it doesn’t change Dan’s mind.
Fast-forward to an entirely different story in Greenwich Village. We’re in the company of a gossipy, worldly-wise narrator who seems to know all about the local gay scene – I was reminded of Armistead Maupin – and who tells us what ‘we’ do and don’t know about what is going on. In fact, he knows it all – he is no less omniscient than the narrator of Hanna’s chapter – but describes the arrival of Dan, nearly ten pages in, as that of a newcomer none of them have met before. I wondered why Enright has chosen this voice, and can’t really decide… except that it’s engaging and seems somehow appropriate for the lifestyle that Dan is trying out. The way that Dan tramples obliviously on the sensibilities of the recent and suffering partner of Billy, the man who is instantly besotted by him, tells us a lot about him. Dan is planning to marry Isabelle, the woman we first met when Hanna went to stay with him for a few days after Easter in 1980. She was his girlfriend then, and the news of this is what seems to shake their mother out of her self-inflicted reversion to the ‘horizontal’, as Dan calls it.
By the end of his own chapter, Dan has entirely disappeared from the Village. He has been back to Billy for consolatory sex when things aren’t going well with Isabelle – he doesn’t marry her in the end, if I remember rightly – but when he is told that Billy is close to death after a short and virulent attack of the disease he doesn’t even visit him. And I realise that the insider narrator turns Dan into an outsider in his own chapter. Not a great social participator, Dan. Too busy thinking about himself.
Constance is different. Enright reverts to a more straightforward narrative mode for the story of a sibling who is the opposite of Dan. She went the classic route, going for husband and kids because there was never any alternative. She thought there was for a while, dreaming of higher education (not bright enough), dreaming of raising the fare to New York (not earning enough as the shop-girl she pretended not to be). Enright never states it, but Constance’s awareness of her own body – it borders on obsession, and it’s no accident that most of the chapter is set in a hospital – defines her sense of herself in essentially physical terms. As she is forced to undergo more than just the basic mammogram, she dwells on the feel and smell of her three individual children, thinks about the daily morning sex her husband likes and that she doesn’t even think about questioning…. She keeps reminding herself how lucky she is, and even as she discovers she is in the clear her situation seems desperately sad. There is the tiniest of outbursts when she gets home, for which she apologises to every member of the family individually. And that’s her.
Fourth and fifth chapters – to the end of Part 1
Enright is really good at this. Both Emmet (Mali, 2002) and Rosaleen (Co. Clare, 2005) get deep inside the consciousness of the characters, each of them both painfully self-aware and yet unable to get themselves out of a fixed mind-set they know is no good for them. There are moments in Emmet’s story when we wince at his inability to control the part he is playing in the downward trajectory of his relationship with a woman he thinks he might love. Rosaleen is the mother, and we see an unlikeable character, full of prejudices and a quickness to blame, from right inside her own head.
Emmet’s chapter is set as far away from home as Dan’s. The location is presented just as plausibly – it would be as hard to believe that Enright hasn’t spent time in Africa as to imagine that the Greenwich Village she describes is entirely imaginary – but neither Emmet nor his chapter could be more different. Dan had been the one to make a big thing of the good works he would do as a priest – his mother takes to her bed because she knows that once he has gone to ‘the missions’ she will never see her favourite child again – but it’s Emmet who has spent 20 years working for aid agencies in the poorest countries in the world. He has been in a relationship for a few months and, by way of a stray dog that his partner gradually introduces into the house, Enright scrutinises the tiny differences between Emmet and her that they somehow allow to become irreconcilable.
On its own, it would be a perfect short story. We can see exactly why she adopts the dog and why, for perfectly understandable reasons to do with the Muslim culture of Mali, he only allows it grudgingly. Both she and the dog sense his unease, but mistake it for hostility. When the children of their house servant follow her in the street, barking like dogs and rubbing their bellies, she thinks at first they want to eat it. Emmet is astonished by this idea, and she realises they are taunting her for feeding the dog more than they eat themselves. We feel her embarrassment and her awareness that Emmet, without saying a word, is on their side. Emmet honestly does what he can for a dog he has no affection for, but when it dies from a dose of poison he makes the mistake of saying that it’s only a dog after all. ‘And that, he knew, was the end of them.’ It isn’t the end of the story, but where can it go after that? We know of Emmet’s breakdown some years before, know that he blames himself for an apparent coldness that is really only a protective shell. What’s a man to do but realise, too late, that he should have told her long ago that he loved her?
Rosaleen’s chapter is different from the others. They all have passing references to each family member’s siblings and parents, but there’s a coming together in this one- or two-hour snapshot of their mother’s life in old age. It feels even less like a stand-alone short story than the others, because her children are almost all she ever thinks about. We have witnessed this woman being defined by them, and now her perspective is both predictable and, at times, joltingly disorientating. We forget how much time has passed, so that when we hear that Hanna, the one we’ve only met as a girl, is now living a chaotic adult life it’s like meeting those cousins we only see at funerals. This is what it’s like for Rosaleen, who remembers Dan, for instance, not as he is now – she doesn’t see him from one year’s end to the next – but as a boy of eight. Emmet, whom we’ve hardly met, suddenly gets a back-story that defines him as having been like he is since very early childhood.
Rosaleen is writing Christmas cards one November evening, and she does it in order of preference. Dan is first, then… not Constance, who comes in to see her every day, but Emmet, now back in Ireland after all those years spent abroad. She has such trouble getting the wording right on Hanna’s card that she spoils it and, inevitably, blames Hanna. When bustling, busy, endlessly helpful Constance brings in some groceries she is exactly as grateful as you would expect – not at all – and, after she’s gone, calls out to her to get rid of some weight. Rosaleen is as difficult a character as we’ve always known – Emmet’s memory is of her crying ‘Oh No!’ when he brought her expensive chocolates – and she’s had enough of her life at the house she’s lived in since childhood. She remembers the deaths, in the bedroom upstairs that she no longer uses, of the only men she ever loved (her father and husband), and she thinks it’s time to go and live with Constance. She adds a P.S. to Dan’s card, telling him to visit this Christmas because ‘I have decided to sell the house.’
Is Part 2 going to be about a gathering? It’s looking like it.
Part 2, Coming Home, as far as The Hungry Grass…
…which is the chapter when they really do all get together on Christmas Day. I’m still astonished at how perfectly Enright describes the particular category of tortured exasperation that is confined to family members gathered together. Every single one of them, in the familiar habitat they have all left long ago, is uncannily recognisable. The Christmas family argument might have become a cliché of stand-up routines and sitcoms, but Enright makes it seem as though nobody else has ever thought of it – including Jonathan Franzen in one of my all-time favourite novels, The Corrections. Like Franzen, Enright doesn’t put a foot wrong.
At first, Part 2 seems to carry on from where Part 1 left off. The first chapter, Toronto, is entirely about Dan’s life with the comfortably-off Canadian lawyer he’s been living with for five years. It’s as convincing a milieu, with their fussiness about décor and food, as anything that’s come before. Enright brings all her expertise as a writer of short stories to establish in a few sentences everything we need to know. Dan is as likeable and shallow as he always was, but he convinces himself that he really loves this man who will be able to keep him in the manner he can’t afford on his own. Money, and the way it affects the most important choices we make in life, is mentioned far more in Part 2. Dan tells his partner of the scruples he has, and the response is exactly as we, and no doubt Dan, would expect. Of course he mustn’t even think about finances. They decide that they are ready to get married.
This runs alongside a decision he has to make: will he go and see his mother for what seems likely to be the last ever Christmas in the old family home? With Dan, it’s no simple matter of ‘Of course I must.’ He knows he will hate it, feels very little obligation to siblings he doesn’t like much and rarely sees…. His partner makes the decision for him by buying the air ticket. Unlike with the other characters, Enright presents Dan almost entirely through conversations or, if she does let us inside his head, it is never for long. Somehow, we never really get to know what he’s thinking.
It’s different with his siblings. We are with Hanna and Emmet in different parts of Dublin and Constance wherever she is – mainly in a supermarket on Christmas Eve before (or after) she picks Dan up from the airport – and they are presented as intimately as before. Hanna really is as much of a mess as the other characters’ previous references to her would suggest. Enright chooses to begin her chapter with her on the kitchen floor, bleeding from a head wound following a fall. She drinks too much, isn’t coping well with bringing up a baby, and her acting ambitions have come to almost nothing. Her fantasies about the career she might yet achieve give way to self-hatred and more drinking. Her husband tolerates her because the sex is good – this always seems to be a great smoother of difficulties for the Madigan women – but, by the end of the chapter, he is appalled that she’s accidentally managed to soak the child’s clothes in strong spirit (I think it’s gin). He tells her she can go home on her own, and that he’ll join her later.
Emmet and Constance are the ones who do things for other people. So they are universally liked, yes? As if. The others patronise them, letting Constance do almost everything for their mother and regarding Emmet’s work abroad as evidence of his failure. He has no money, ‘affects’ to drives a cheap car (in contrast to the Lexus that Constance adores) and so, in the tiger economy that is Ireland in 2005, he can be disregarded. As it happens, Constance is almost as chaotic as Hanna, forgetting so many things on her shopping trip that she has to go straight back to the supermarket. On Christmas Day she burns the sprouts that only Rosaleen wants – to be told by her, of course, that nobody wanted them anyway. Emmet is routinely described as the ‘cold’ one, whatever good he might have done in Africa.
But maybe I’m falling into the kind of false categorisation that families use to define one another. I remember in The Gathering how there was a kind of shorthand definition for each family member, some easy label that didn’t necessarily have any basis in truth. I’m thinking of Dan and Hanna as the un-giving, selfish pair, and maybe they are. But Emmet is constantly irritated by his mother, falls into the trap of blaming her almost every time she says anything. It’s as though the personality we present in the family milieu seems entirely beyond our control. The hedonistic, self-serving Dan seems to fill the air around his mother with sweetness, whereas Constance irritates her. It isn’t fair, and nobody knows how it happens, but Dan can do no wrong while Constance and the others, in her eyes, get nothing right.
This kind of universal truth – I’m assuming from my own family life that it really is universal – is what Enright does so well. On Christmas Day itself, Enright moves away from the strict demarcation of points of view that she’s kept up for most of the novel so far. We might get to know what any one of them is feeling… or we might not. The ghost of a motive or a small irritation might flicker to the surface, and then it’s gone, so we don’t really know what drives anybody. This is particularly true of Rosaleen. She announces, just as Constance’s preparations reach a critical moment, why she is selling the house. Suddenly mortality is in the air – she spins a good self-pitying line in the style of someone not long for this world, and not reconciled to the fact – and her children can’t stop her. And… the sprouts burn. Constance has already had her expensive present, the one that took her most of a day to choose, summarily rejected by her mother, and soon she can be heard weeping in the garden as she bangs and scrapes the pan. I can’t tell you how much domestic bleakness there is in those sounds.
Constance recovers. They all recover, to the extent that they eat their dinner without murdering one another, but nobody comes out of it well. Hanna, becoming more and more drunk, spits out blame and sarcasm. Emmet muses on the uselessness of a life in which nothing he has ever done has really made a difference in the world. Dan… is Dan, floating through the day and sending a flippant text – OMG SOS – to his partner in Canada. Enright very rarely ventures inside Dan’s consciousness, offering instead these wry insights. Another is the way he says ‘Buon appetito’ instead of grace, and gets away with it. Meanwhile Constance, who has worked her fingers to the bone for no thanks at all tells them that no, their mother is not going to be coming to live with them. (When Rosaleen had announced her intention to do this after selling her house, it was news to Constance’s husband.) Nobody believes their mother is really going to sell the house anyway. But they might not be right.
Rosaleen is seen going for a drive. Her careering trajectory across a flowerbed is described from the point of view of one of her children looking on wryly. ‘Nice one,’ says Hanna. But nobody is really interested by this latest display of – of what? Petulance? Exhibitionism? If anything, there’s a sense of relief, and Dan is able to make an announcement about his upcoming marriage. The news is received in the kinds of ways you would expect.
But away from the house, something important is happening, or about to happen. I notice that the next chapter, focusing on Rosaleen, is The Green Road.
The Green Road to the end
What happens is King Lear. The old parent, having been rejected by the daughter, goes out into the night and cries out to the elements. The reference to Lear isn’t accidental. I remember Enright mentioning it in a short interview I heard when the book first came out a few weeks ago. She also refers to a character who imagines jumping from a cliff – the Gloucester moment, she called it – only to land in a puddle. That was Hanna, in her chapter earlier in Part 2, now echoed when Rosanna has the idea of reaching the cliffs and ending it all. It’s a short-lived fancy, and she almost instantly rejects the ‘palaver’ of it. Soon, as the cold gets to her bones and she finds herself on her hands and knees, all she wants to do is save herself.
This sub-chapter would make a perfect short story, exactly as it is. This is true of most of the chapters in this novel – but, like all of them, this one gains immeasurably from what we know from other chapters. Those little regrets, the injustice of her throwaway judgments – ‘Such selfish children she had reared’ – are what make her what she is. And, with the ghost of her dead husband beside her, she begins to have some insight into her own behaviour. She remembers how, after the extraordinary fervour and impulsiveness of their early life together, her husband said less and less as the years went on. ‘And that was her fault too.’ It’s probably the first time in her life she’s ever realised how much to blame she is, so perhaps she isn’t Lear at all, but Scrooge after the visits of the spirits. But… she isn’t safe and, as her sub-chapter ends, we don’t know whether she will survive.
She does, of course. After the longest of delays, as though none of them can take her histrionics seriously, the family raise the alarm. Constance would have done it much earlier – when she hears from them, after something like three hours, she is full of recriminations she doesn’t quite speak out loud – but she had left early after telling her mother she wouldn’t be living with her. Except for only the shortest of sub-chapters when Enright briefly returns us to the existential crisis that is what has become of Rosaleen’s conscious mind, we are in a different novel entirely. It’s almost social comedy, as the family realise that none of them is fit to drive, a humourlessly efficient rescue worker arrives to tell them what to do, and the suggestion is made that on Ireland on Christmas night only the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous would be any help at all. This is small-town Ireland, and someone has their number. Of course they do.
It’s one of the ‘heroic members of the local AA’ – this phrase is actually used – who is driving Hanna when she spots first her father’s old family home, empty, and then her mother’s car, also empty. The moments after she goes into the roofless hovel where her mother is sheltering are genuinely moving. She can tell that Rosaleen is half-dead from the cold, and instinctively lies down and holds her to bring some warmth into her. Without fuss, the man driving her wraps his coat around their legs, and soon Mr Efficient is covering them with a reflective foil sheet until the paramedics arrive. Rosaleen drifts in and out of memories of one of the few foreign holidays she’d ever had – ‘she had a glass of limoncello, free at the end of the meal’ – which is how the chapter ends.
All of this, so far, has been contained in the long chapter called The Green Road. This is the (real) road in western Ireland that Rosaleen first strides along, then stumbles, then crawls. It overlooks the vastness of the Atlantic, somehow retaining and reflecting light from the sun long after it has disappeared from everywhere else. Over there, too, is New York, magnet for the Irish and constantly referred to in this novel. Rosaleen, unlike at least two of her children, has never been there. It remains, I suppose, as out of reach as the light that eventually does go, leaving her desolate. It becomes the scene of her crisis, the one that leads, in the first of her sub-chapters, to her awareness of the ‘gaps between things…. She had fallen into the gap.’ But, it seems, she’s out of it now. She is very, very glad to be alive.
There’s a kind of honeymoon period, described in five short chapters each focusing on one of the family members. Emmet is the one doing the dutiful bedside vigil, and is there when Rosaleen wakes. She seems almost re-born, but there are plenty of hints that this isn’t going to be A Christmas Carol after all. I’ll come back to that. Then it’s Dan, discovering on social media that Greg, Billy’s partner in New York before Dan himself, is alive and (sort of) well. He sends him an affectionate greeting that he only pretends is casual. Then it’s Emmet again, doing the same with that former lover of his in Mali, who has sent him an email to do with some possible work. How does his P.S. go? ‘I think about you all the time.’ He has just been thinking about marrying his current lover…. Then Hanna, who isn’t sorting out her life despite the illusion of some progress and awareness of her own alcoholism. And then it’s Emmet again for the final chapter and Rosaleen’s final appearance. She turns up, having driven all the way to his tacky house in Dublin, and he realises his phone is full of frantic messages from the others. Or not quite all the others: Constance has sent nothing, and this momentarily surprises him. Then he gets on with reassuring them all before she tells him that Constance has thrown her out.
This statement has no truth in it, is no more true than the self-deluding story she tells herself on Christmas day that she is only going for her usual after-dinner walk. In fact, Constance has to go into hospital for ‘major surgery’ – her husband’s trembling words on the phone – and Rosaleen ‘took it all the wrong way’ when Constance told her that morning.
These five thumbnails of the family members’ lives, and the unfair inevitability of Constance’s plight, are Enright’s way of telling us all we need to know. Some months have passed since Christmas, and in less than twenty pages any hopes raised are – what? Are shown to have been without foundation. There are a lot of ruined houses in this novel, and Rosaleen’s itself has been sold and boarded up. Foundations? Don’t make me laugh.
Have I done justice to this book? I’ve quoted very little of it, although it’s often a telling little phrase of Enright’s that will catch the nuances of the relationships, and places, and lifestyles. And of feeling not quite comfortable in your own skin – or your own house. And I’ve only hinted at the way Enright tries out different forms. I’ve written about variations in the point of view, but there are also the different chapter styles to add to the gay scene gossip in Dan’s chapter in Part 1, and the social comedy of the overdue search for Rosaleen. There’s the confident, worldly-wise tone of the long-term expat’s view of Africa, the compromised mind-set of an overweight woman with a life that feels too comfortable. And there’s Rosaleen’s extraordinary sub-chapter on the blasted heath. There’s even an explanation of the title of the Christmas Day chapter, The Hungry Grass, one of those almost hidden but terrifying historical references that are almost closed to a non-Irish reader. There’s nothing else quite like this section in the whole of the rest of the novel. There nearly is, sometimes, but nowhere else is there that sense of a ‘gap’, a tiny word that can’t mask the terror she feels of the vertiginous abyss that’s opened up in her life.
And… I’m quite seriously disquieted by some of it. I mentioned how recognisable some of these people are, but that isn’t the half of it. There are people very close to me who almost are Rosaleen, and Dan, and Hanna…. But there’s a limit to what can be made public. I know who I mean, and I find it genuinely difficult to come to terms with.