After 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).