#AW80Books: Enright vs O’Farrell – Who is the Queen of the Multiple Narrative Family Meltdown?

 

Anne Enright’s The Green Road was picked as last month’s book choice for my book group. As it also tied in nicely with both our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge and Reading Ireland Month hosted by 746 Books and Raging Fluff, I felt like I’d be ticking all the boxes with my review. The book, Anne Enright’s sixth novel, was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Novel Award, longlisted for the 2015 ManBooker Prize, and has also been longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction. Such high acclaim raises expectations and I was curious to see whether it would delight or disappoint.

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There’s no question that Anne Enright writes beautiful prose. Her words, steeped in melancholy and tea, flow with an easy rhythm, hinting at both the inevitability of sorrow and a stoic resignation to it.  The story is about siblings -Hanna, Dan, Constance and Emmet,returning to the west coast of Ireland for a last Christmas in the childhood home that their mother, Roseleen Madigan is about to sell. Enright’s evocation of their childhood memories stored in the actual fabric of the home towards the end of the novel is very poignant.

And, yet, everywhere he looked, the house held memory and meaning that his heart could not. The house was full of detail, interest, love.                                                                                            It was a question of texture, Dan thought, a whiff of your former self in a twist of fabric, a loose board. It was the reassuring madness of patterned wallpaper under the daily shift of light.

The Green Road is evocative and lyrical, and yet there was something about it that felt contrived. Using multiple narratives over a period of decades, Enright fleshes out the separate lives of each character and reveals the complexities of their interwoven relationships building to a claustrophobic climax over a dysfunctional Christmas dinner and its dramatic aftermath. However, the infrastructure jarred with me. I thought the characters were well-drawn, particularly enjoying the contrast between the slow rhythm of Hanna’s chapter compared with the sharper more staccato prose evoking Dan’s city life in New York. (This section was my favourite and contained a line that took me back to my Art History MA and made me laugh out loud: ‘She had Richard Serra next to her, and he was incredibly handsome and, dare one say, monumental’.) As the novel progressed, however, it felt like the characters were being rolled out one by one, and being forced into a narrative structure that didn’t quite fit. 

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Due to the fragmentary effect of migration on families, it’s no coincidence that returning home and family reunion are recurrent themes in Irish writing. That said, The Green Road reminded me so much of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions For A Heatwave in both structure and plot, that I couldn’t help comparing them as I read. O’Farrell’s novel, which was also Costa shortlisted (2013), is set in the legendary heatwave of 1976 (I remember it well – it was the summer of brown lawns, mosquito bites and hose-pipe bans). Incapacitated by the unbearable humidity, the O’Riordan family rally to search for their father who has gone AWOL. The plots of both novels are similar: there is a gathering of family; emotional dysfunction; secrecy, and they use a similar narrative structure, and yet, there is an effortlessness to O’Farrell’s novel that is missing from Enright’s. Where I found Enright’s structure forced, in O’Farrell’s hands, the structure merges seamlessly into the background, providing an effective stage upon which the vividly drawn characters interact convincingly, playing out their drama as if in real time. 

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Instructions For A Heatwave is the perfect example of how a multiple viewpoint structure can really bring a novel to life with a culmination of separate voices weaving together to create some multi-dimensional magic. However, in The Green Road, that same structure grated and felt superimposed, which was a great shame, as it was a distraction from an otherwise crystalline observation of a family’s disintegration under pressure.

I’d really recommend this cracking review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions For a Heatwave written by  Naomi at Consumed by Ink.

You can see the other books Lucy and I have read and are planning to read on our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, here.

 

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