The Green Road

Green RoadAfter reading the first couple of chapters in Anne Enright’s new novel, I tweeted that I was feeling done with novels that were really interconnected short stories. That’s not entirely true, of course, but the first half of this book is a good example of what a heavy lift that form is.

The first five chapters of The Green Road could each exist independently of the others. They’re set in different times and places. The first two are particularly difficult. The first, about Hanna in 1980 in County Clare, jumps around a lot and seems to focus as much on Hanna’s brother Dan is it does on Hanna. There’s a narrative reason for that, I think, which becomes evident later, but it makes Hanna’s chapter difficult to get into. The second chapter, which is actually about Dan in 1991 New York. Although highly effective at evoking an era, this chapter has the curious feature of an unnamed first-person narrator who, as best I can tell, is never identified, speaking only of “we” but never of “I.” That bit of weirdness is never cleared up. It was these two chapters, connected by character overlap but not much else, that frustrated me. As individual stories, neither seems like much, but they also don’t really enhance each other, which is how interlocking stories should work.

The book improves in subsequent chapters, largely because the stories were more appealing. Constance’s experience of a cancer screening in Co. Limerick in 1997 includes some dark humor and presents what feels like a real moment-by-moment narrative of a day that is both tedious and terrifying. Emmet’s chapter, set in Mali in 2002, is equally appealing in its mix of humor and horror. They’re good standalone stories, but they don’t offer much to each other.

When the stories merge in the second half to bring these four siblings together with their mother, Rosaleen, the book starts to feel more like a novel. And it’s not a bad novel. The focus shifts among the children and their mother, and we see the many ways they understand and misunderstand each other. In crisp, clear, and pleasing prose, Enright offers a picture of family that feels honest in its rendering of distance and intimacy. I especially appreciate how Enright was able to show how aggravating Rosaleen can be without turning her into an object of scorn. There were, I felt, some odd moments around money that weren’t fully worked out, but I think she was trying to get at something about definitions and success and how relying on a spouse’s income isn’t the same as having your own resources, but the way it’s dropped into the story struck me as odd.

As far as where this book belongs in my Booker ranking, after the rocky start, I can’t bring myself to rank it highly. It certainly won’t make my shortlist, unless the remaining five finalists are truly mediocre (which I doubt).

Other Shadow Woman Booker Panel reviews: Bibliographing, Dolce Bellezza, Nonsuch Book


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8 Responses to The Green Road

  1. Denise says:

    I didn’t realise that this book was structured in that short story way. When I was young I remember thinking, “I wish someone would do this” mainly because I wasn’t so keen on short stories, the way you lose your emotional investment with the characters. Now that I have seen this done a few times I realise why most novels aren’t structured that way!

    • Teresa says:

      I know I’ve read some interlocking story collections that I like, but I can’t think of any that became favorites. The second half is of this is more of a traditional novel, so it’s an even stranger hybrid.

  2. nicole says:

    One theory I have is that the first chapter, which you attribute to Hanna’s POV (and certainly I can see why), is supposed to be about Rosaleen or perhaps the family as a whole. That’s kind of what I was suggesting in my post when I mentioned that the novel begins and ends with her–though again, I think it’s pretty unclear. But the focus on her reaction to Dan’s announcement at the beginning, and on how the families fit together and coalesce around the pharmacy, was, I thought, more front and center. And Hanna gets her own chapter later on as well. It’s a bit messy though.

    • Teresa says:

      I was being literal in saying the first chapter is about Hanna, because it’s labeled with her name, but then it ends up being all about Dan’s relationship with Rosaleen. My thinking was that Dan got all the attention because he was the one Rosaleen felt connected to, and Hanna is left on the outside. And maybe being on the outside is one of the keys to her character. It’s either clever or sloppy–not sure which.

  3. Alex says:

    I agree with Nicole, I also thought the first chapter was more about Rosaleen and the stress that the family lived under as a result of her response to situations she felt she couldn’t cope with. However, my first reaction when I finished the book was to put it onto one of my reading group lists for next year (when the paperback is available) because I think it will benefit from both a second read and a close discussion.

  4. Janakay says:

    I enjoyed the novel but like you certainly wouldn’t put it on my own “short list,” particularly compared to Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (a difficult read, but worth every minute) or, I think (I’m only halfway through) Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways.” Like a couple of the other commenters, I interpreted the first chapter as being more about the mother than Hanna; to the extent there was a unifying element in the novel I took it to be Rosaleen and how her character had formed (or deformed!) her children. But then, again, I didn’t think there was much structural unity there at all! I thought the chapters set in New York (Dan) and Mali (Emmet? I’ve forgotten his name) were the most interesting, although I didn’t think they meshed too well with the rest of the novel. It also bothered me a bit that both the daughters had the stereotyped female roles (nurturer–older sister & emotional mess–younger sister) but then again, maybe Enright was just being realistic about the roles women reared in a traditional culture would end up adopting. And, yes, that weird unidentified “we” narrator in Dan’s part of the novel, set in New York, really threw me–I ended up checking back to see if I had missed the narrator being identified.

    • Teresa says:

      James, Sahota, and Robinson are the only ones I feel confident about shortlisted. I’m glad you’re liking the Sahota so far! No one else on the Shadow Panel has read it yet, and I haven’t seen much discussion of it anywhere.

      Emmet’s and Constance’s chapters were my favorites, although it’s hard to believe they were in the same book. The style of Dan’s chapter kept me at too much of a distance–and it really felt like it was in a different book! I wondered toward the end when Greg reappears briefly if the whole “we” problem would be resolved there, but alas no, unless I missed something.

      It’s interesting to be complaining here of stylistic inconsistency when James writes in all sorts of styles. James shows how it’s supposed to work. Here, they’re not different enough for it to be obviously deliberate, so it looks like showing off without adding value.

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