In her novel The Green Road, published this month by Norton, Irish author Anne Enright tells the story of the Madigans, a family from County Clare in western Ireland who scatter to cities and countries far from home.
When we meet at a Dublin cafe, Enright, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering, tells me that a friend described her new book as “Rosaleen’s accommodation issue,” which is not an entirely facetious summary. Rosaleen, the Madigan matriarch in the The Green Road, is the blood and marrow of this new novel, and, according to Enright, she is based on two sources: the poetry of Emily Lawless and King Lear.
“Rosaleen’s a townie—a step up from the rest,” Enright says. “She was the daughter of a chemist, and chemists had such power in Ireland, especially until the mid-’70s. Though in reality all they sold was coatings—biological Vaseline.”
Rosaleen is also “elaborately uninterested in things which are not local,” Enright says. Within the family, she exerts control in ways that can only be called malevolent. She plays favorites; she talks about the children behind their back. They are continually forced to prop her up. Her son Emmet’s observations are grim but true: “She was an impossible woman. Emmet did not know why it was his job to keep his mother in line, he just couldn’t help it. He could not bear the unreality she fomented about her. Emmet could not understand why the truth was such a problem to Rosaleen, why facts were an irrelevance, or an accusation. He did not know what she was skittering away from, all the time.”
The result, inevitably, is four children who doubt themselves. The woman who has no agency in her public life and then exploits her power in the home is a staple of Irish literature and life. But Enright does not think Rosaleen is “specifically Irish.” She sees her as “a bit Tennessee Williams, with her fading powers.”
There is a universality to the concerns of Rosaleen’s children, too. Emmet, who works for an NGO in Africa, is the most striking example. Enright says she was very engaged by the world of NGOs—“its busyness, its ambition and despair”—and would like to return to it again in her writing. Each of the children also has distinct sexual identities, a feature Enright says she was careful to develop. Dan, for instance, is a closeted homosexual who carries himself with a mix of naïveté and disingenuousness after spending time abroad. Enright says, “We’re all Dan—we’re all coming home after experiences we can never articulate.” As such, the family exhibits themes that Enright has explored at length in work such as The Gathering, in which she focuses on the Irish connection between sexuality and shame.
This year Enright was named the inaugural laureate for Irish fiction by the Irish Arts Council. Her three-year term began in January, and its chief focus, as she sees it, is an engagement with the writing community, which she has “plans for later this year.”
Enright says she feels energized by the current state of Irish writing and laughs at how, in 2008, she bemoaned its lack of urgency and relevance following the Irish economic crash. To her satisfaction, what has emerged is “a new wave of confident, urgent, interesting, textured, difficult writing, and writers such as Mary Costelloe, Gavin Corbett, and Eimear McBride.” She says it reminds her of the generation that came up in the late 1980s and ’90s, including Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Tóibín; Enright says she imagines them “in rooms, eyeing each other up across the table, and there’s a potential for conversation.”
Enright’s own writing continues to engage readers. Our interview is the first of a series over the coming months to publicize The Green Road, but she feels little anxiety regarding the distracting nature of such affairs, saying, “There’s a time to write and a time to talk. I trust those rhythms more now.”
As Enright ponders the difference between men and women, she says that she thinks that male writers feel less shame about not cleaning the house. Again, like her précis of Rosaleen, these words are not quite as flip as they sound. “Women are magnets for shame; display for men is simpler. Women need endless reassurance.”
The Internet, Enright feels, has been “a good force for freeing the female voice.” When she was in her 20s, she felt a compulsion to write, during a catastrophic period in her life, but the process of becoming a writer “hasn’t felt as if it’s been in the public domain.” Instead it’s been “to a single reader at a time” rather than “ghosts and shadows.” Enright adds that “I went where I was welcome.” She feels she knows her audience, saying, “I really like my readers.” Though she’s had significant success, it is probable, she remarks, “that if I had been better looking, I’d have had a worse life.”
As for process, Enright says she has two types of working days, and one is “ duller than the other.” For the start of her writing day, it is all she can do to “wrench myself from the Internet” and start writing at 2 p.m. Her children come home from school, and she writes again later in the evening with less serious intent, though it’s often more fruitful. Each book takes two to three years. For her other type of working day, instead of writing, she gardens.
Enright says that she loves each character in The Green Road, even Rosaleen—“a vital scrap of humanity.” Catharsis comes (of course) to Rosaleen at the climax of the book, when she howls in the boglands at the night. The drama and desperation of that moment is a sharp contrast to Enright’s way, which is eager but at ease. She has a singular voice in Irish literature, and few have written with such self-possession and grace. The Green Road is a highly accomplished and hugely enjoyable piece of work.
Our interview ends, and with a wave, Enright rides her bicycle toward the sea and a sunny afternoon.
Sinead O’Shea is a filmmaker, writer, and journalist.