Anne Enright, the Booker Prize winning novelist, has just released The Green Road (W.W. Norton), her flawless new novel charting three decades in the life of a Co. Clare family.
The set up is classically -- even ostentatiously – Irish: a mother laments the three decade long process whereby her children, all given patriot’s names, grow up and, as she tells it, mostly abandon her to her fate.
Dan, the eldest boy, is gay but is the last to know it. Unable to find a storyline he can successfully inhabit in his own country, he has to go abroad to find himself, embarking on a collision course with the AIDS crisis in New York City.
The book begins in Clare and it returns there eventually like an altered emigrant, but in the process Enright clearly wants to explode as much as explore the Irish tradition.
To do this she clears space, with delightful facility, for the sheer variousness of global Irish experience, moving between New York, Africa and Ireland with the ease of a globetrotting paddy.
“I do feel there is an unsettled thing in my work, that I keep moving in case I’m caught, that I come out different every time,” Enright tells the Irish Voice.
“I do that so that I won’t be trapped. A lot of what I do is about avoiding context. Because any context that could be ascribed to me in Ireland is the end of me. So I have to keep working the context and now in the second half of my career I build my own. I am a refuser of all labels and descriptions that might be put on me, and once it settles I will write a different book.”
For Enright, eluding the imprisoning nets that Irish history casts around writers has been the work of a lifetime. It’s a milestone in her own creative development that she has made peace with the process now.
“I’m a bit more settled in myself now,” she says. “When I see how restless my early work was I realize I was trying to get away from the f***kers,” she laughs. “I was trying to keep clear, to keep moving.”
The f***kers she is talking about are variously the Irish tradition, the Celtic Twilight, romantic nationalism, theocracy and all the imprisoning claims of 20th century Irish literature, history and politics.
“In The Green Road I’m coming back. I’m older now and it’s time to. The book belongs to each of the four children in its entirety. They are four self-enclosed worlds but they come together in the end and talk about it.”
When hearing that her eldest son Dan has been inspired by the 1980 papal visit and wants to become a priest Rosaleen, the recognizably martyred mother, takes to her bed. Luxuriating in depression and self-incrimination, she can be seen in a certain light as an image of the floundering recession-hit nation itself.
“Somewhere in the back of the book is Mother Ireland, this abandoned and abandoning mother,” says Enright. “Which is the bad version of emigration, emigration as loss and keening and mourning for something lovely. But actually many emigrants felt themselves to be kicked out and unwelcome and had to go elsewhere in order to be themselves.”
Dan the young gay man, who is the last to know about his true orientation, has to leave the book Enright says, because he was so far away from knowing who he was. He also has to leave Ireland.
“Dan and history meet later on, the world develops around him and makes it possible for him to be who he is. Then he comes back to Ireland,” the author says.
The struggle to make your voice heard above the cacophony of Irish history, or even in your own family history, is a perennial Irish theme, as is stepping into selfhood after a battle with the same protagonists.
In The Green Road, Enright explains, Rosaleen is a wretch.
“She does everything wrong. She has never heard of unconditional love, why should she? Her children are clearly an extension of her and they about to leave her. She never grows up.”
They leave her, they’re always ungrateful; constant themes in Irish literature and politics. “Under there somewhere I suppose is the idea of Ireland abandoning its own or being abandoned by its own,” says Enright.
“She’s in her own place and that place is shrinking as she gets older. You cannot disturb her with the wide world. The news is always local, and anything that isn’t is an affront. It offends their self importance actually.”
The Green Road is calculated to shake her out of her torpor like a blast of gelignite, and in the process Enright has written the novel of her already storied career.