Every family is, in its own way, a mini theater troupe, each member reciting well-rehearsed lines, for an audience of just each other.
In Anne Enright’s family drama The Green Road, matriarch Rosaleen is both star of the show and director, expertly stage-managing her children’s emotions. The novel begins in 1980 with Hanna, the youngest, through whose eyes we see the momentous day that her brother, Dan, announces he’s joining the priesthood and Rosaleen takes to her bed in protest. The Madigan siblings instinctively play their assigned roles: “Dan pulled a wry face as he went back to his book, Constance might make tea and Emmett would do something very noble and pure—a single flower brought from the garden, a serious kiss. Hanna would not know what to do except go in and be loved.” Rosaleen is the only Madigan free to choose her actions; the children, too young for any autonomy or power, follow a script written before they were born.
But then Hanna goes to visit Dan in Dublin, where she sees an actual play, in a real theater. She returns home and describes it to Rosaleen, “and her mother had the teatowel for a headscarf, and she was hobbling along saying: ‘O, to have a little house! To own the hearth and stool and all’!” We see Rosaleen’s passion for not just self-conjured domestic drama, but the real thing; not just her small triumphs over her children, but the larger losses of her life. In the next moment she realizes the tea towel is filthy, and Hanna wanders off, and when she comes back looking for a snack, “the only thing cooking was dirty dish-rags. Hanna lifted the lid and looked at the grey water, with its scum of soap. Her mother was sitting at the table, looking straight ahead.”
The successive chapters follow the other three Madigan children: in 1991 Dan, having failed to become a priest,++ is in New York, attempting to succeed at remaining heterosexual. His family is a tug across the ocean: “Just over there, see? Three thousand miles thattaway, that’s where I am from.” Six years later Constance, back home in Ireland, awaits a mammogram, rich on Ireland’s economic boom, taken for granted by her children, her husband, and her mother. In 2002 Emmett is in Mali, continuing to attempt an act noble and pure—of the Madigan boys, he might have been the one best suited for the priesthood—but instead punishing himself any time he comes close to love. Which brings us back to Ireland, where, in 2005, Rosaleen is writing her Christmas cards with a practiced application of guilt and withholding of affection, as she decides, as a literal postscript, to sell the family home, in a calculated bid to get her children back under one roof.
Rosaleen’s plot succeeds, and soon her children are back at their assigned places at the table, instantly regressed to their childhood selves: Dan still the favorite, Constance the servant, Emmett the unloved, Hanna the fuckup, but this time less enthusiastic to play their parts. They do so begrudgingly, grasping at reminders of who they are in their ‘real’ lives. “OMG SOS” Dan texts his boyfriend back in Toronto. Hanna sneaks bottles of wine. Constance spends a small fortune on groceries, gets her hair done “in a place so posh it didn’t look done at all.” Emmet sulks: “It was, Emmet thought, like living in a hole in the ground.”
As with the opening of the book, Rosaleen turns a non-crisis into a starring role for herself in the family drama, wielding her only real power, which is the power of her absence. In searching for their missing mother, the siblings are briefly unified. They don’t so much transcend their individual roles as triumph in them, each playing the part he or she was born to play in the drama of saving their mother’s life: “We had been, for those hours on the dark mountainside, a force. A family.” And Rosaleen, finally getting the attention she craves, the audience she deserves, brings down the house: “Emmet saw what he had not seen in many years: his mother being wonderful…It was just her mood that changed. It was just her life that had changed.”
The term “domestic novel” comes up often when critics talk about contemporary women writers, though what domestic means, and what the alternative is, is rarely specified. Like Enright’s previous novels, The Green Road, with its pages-long description of the contents of a grocery cart, its minute attentions to the business of feeding and clothing a body and inhabiting a house, could certainly be called domestic. Yet the novel spans continents, not just in terms of Enright’s characters’ wanderings, but in the breadth of her concerns. The opposite of a domestic novel might be called a global novel, and in these brilliantly realized, shiningly human characters who so convincingly enact the human drama of family, Enright has written a book that is not just global, but universal.