Review: The Green Road

Reading Ireland Month 2019: Book 1

So much better than The Gathering!

You may recall that I was critical of the “lit sex” in The Gathering. This criticism didn’t stem from prudishness, but because the absurdity of these scenes made me laugh and check out from the story. In The Green Road, a tighter narrative and more interesting characters kept me engaged even though a few lines made me laugh:

He wanted to put his tongue on the salt corner of Dan’s eye, where his eyelid trembled shut. (54)

[…] the unreliable little ribcage, with a pair of those flat little triangular breasts like flesh origami […] (65)

Getting a tongue in the eye sounds worse than the insult of folded-paper breasts, but “unreliable little ribcage” is horrific. What does “unreliable” mean here? Does it threaten to pop open? Do her ribs snap easily? Gross.

But about The Green Road

This book is a portrait of a family that is crumbling, but might come back together. It’s told in two parts. The first half, “Leaving,” chronicles the lives of the Madigan children (Hanna, Dan, Constance, and Emmet) after they’ve left their mother’s home. Chapters are set years apart, revealing wider and wider fractures in the family. Each chapter of “Leaving” follows one of the Madigan children in a new setting, though the first, Hanna’s, takes place before anyone has left. Hanna is young enough that she can’t quite understand the family dynamics, but the reader can. When Dan says he’s joining the priesthood and their mother takes to bed (her “horizontal solution”), she breaks her silence to vent to Hanna:

“I thought I could do some cheese on toast,” said Hanna and her mother said, “I made him. I made him the way he is. And I don’t like the way he is. He is my son and I don’t like him, and he doesn’t like me either. And there’s no getting out of all that, because it’s a vicious circle and I have only myself here to blame.”
This all seemed, to Hanna, either true or beside the point. But instead of telling her mother this, she said the thing she was supposed to say:
“But you like me, Mammy.”
“I like you now,” said her mother. (34)

The individual chapters for Hanna’s siblings (Dan, Constance, and Emmet), are strong enough to function as independent shorts. Dan’s chapter, set in New York, 1991, stands out further because it’s the only one narrated by the Royal We instead of an omniscient narrator. I’ve got mixed feelings on this: stylistically, it doesn’t fit with the book. It sacrifices the story at hand for a wider view of the AIDS crisis via showy writing. BUT, the writing is singularly stirring and moving. When Dan eventually surfaces at a dinner party, he’s an after-thought in his own chapter. But by not focusing on Dan, this chapter is more affecting:

Of all the signs, the purple bruise of Kaposi’s was the one we hated most because there was no doubting it and, after the first mother snatches her child from the seat beside you on the subway, it gets hard to leave the house. Sex is also hard to find. Even a hug, when you are speckled by death, is a complicated thing. And the people who would sleep with you now—what kind of people are they? (37)

After catching up on the lives of the Madigan kids, the reader gets one chapter from Rosaleen’s (their mother’s) perspective. A lot has changed over the years, but she’s passive aggressive as ever:

They’d be sorry, to find her gone. They would be very sorry. These people, who spent their entire time leaving her. Not ringing, not writing. They told her nothing, spent their lives getting out of there. Get out and keep going! that was the cry. Don’t turn back! If you turn back you will see your mother turned into a pillar of salt.
Well two could play at that game. (272)

I really enjoy books about dysfunctional families. Is it too late to be a family therapist?

From a writing standpoint, this book far exceeds The Gathering. I’ve read some of The Forgotten Waltz and so far it also exceeds The Gathering. It’s always strange when a writer’s most awarded book seems to be their “worst.”

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0) Though it does feel very fractured and jumpy (the time skips don’t help), the writing is creative and beautiful. I wonder if I enjoyed it more than I might have if I hadn’t read and disliked The Gathering so intensely? Maybe I shouldn’t just recommend this book—I should recommend The Gathering, THEN this book.

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