No man is an island, goes the famous saying. We all need other people. However, in Anne Enright’s The Green Road, the characters really do show how difficult it can be to bridge the space between these islands to connect with other people.
The novel is set in the west of Ireland and centres around Rosaleen Madigan and her grown-up children. A split narrative, with each chapter dedicated to the point of view of one character, the book provides a rounded view of the family – and the faltering connections between them.
The most striking thing is the loneliness each character carries with them. All of the children are surrounded by people. And yet each of them feel desperately alone – although they don’t say it in as many words. Enright’s skill at creating such a piercing feeling of aloneness is a strong merit of the book. It is bolstered by the split narrative of the different characters’ consciousness, concreting further how they don’t quite connect with each other.
Enright’s characterisation, too, is strong. She creates people any one of us could have and have indeed met. Rosaleen is a fairly crabby older woman, who seeks to blame her children. Constance, the oldest daughter, shows unwavering dedication to looking after her mother and the rest of her family. Dan, who left the family home to be a priest, has a lively social life in New York, while alcoholic Hanna struggles with motherhood, and Emmet is an aid worker in various developing countries. While the reader gains precious insight into the consciousness of each character, the split narrative is also an annoyance. The reader gets to know one character well, before their prose is wrenched away, a fresh perspective placed before them – questions left unanswered as to the resolution of the plot.
Despite the frustrations associated with the fractured narrative, the intense feelings exuded by the book are a sign of admirable literature. The cold, hard loneliness of the characters, and the way Enright transmits this to the reader, is a true skill. The ability of a novel to touch the reader is rare, rendering this book definitely one to read. No man is an island after all – and perhaps what this book really connects the reader with is the need for introspection, and to look at one’s own feelings and relationships – and the spaces between them.
The Green Road was published by Vintage Books in 2016.