When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.
When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.
I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.
I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.
I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.
‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.
‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’
‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’
So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.
There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.
Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.”
The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:
“anything, anything at all
To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”
It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).
I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and thereby The Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.
One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also, Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:
“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’
‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”
This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:
“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”
The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.
It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue in The Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:
“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?
Nothing happened. That is what happened.”
I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.
Read this book.