Quite by chance I picked up two novels at random from the Booker Longlist pile only to find that they had a lot in common. Andrew O’Hagan writes about Scotland and Anne Enright about Ireland, both these books are about mothers and their children, about old age and about place and memory. the illuminations, the novel by Andrew O’Hagan starts with Maureen, an active member of a sheltered community home and her neighbour Anne Quirk. Maureen both resents the fact that her children apparently forget her, don’t telephone or send cards and resents the disruption when they are all there. This is not dissimilar to Rosaleen, the matriarch in Anne Enright‘s novel The Green Road. Maureen and Anne live at Saltcoat, a coastal town in Scotland which looks over the water towards the Isle of Arran, Rosaleen lives in an unnamed place, but the view from the Green Road looks out towards the Isle of Aran, such an odd synchronicity that I had to look it up to check that there were really two Ar(r)ans, there really are.
Anne Enright, already a winner of the Man Booker in 2007 for The Gathering, is the Laureate of Irish Writing, the first of the kind and reading her books one can absolutely see why. She writes in a Yeatsian prose, if there is such a thing. With a tremendous feeling for landscape, texture, sky and antiquity. As you read, you can feel the turf squeaking slightly beneath your boots, the cold air and the damp, the slightly salty smell of the seaweed, the dank, human body smell indoors; the sounds of wind, voices, traffic and the silence. In all Anne Enright’s writing the place, the sense and feel and scent of it is present in the narrative, and all changes when the scene moves to America.
Rosaleen has four children, two boys and two girls, Dan the older boy announces near the beginning of the novel that he intends to become a priest, but far from the expected reaction of a good Catholic mother, this sends Rosaleen into a paroxysm of grief;
This was not the first time their mother took the horizontal solution, as Dan liked to call it, but it was the longest that Hanna could remember. The bed creaked from time to time. The toilet flushed and the door of her room closed again. They got off to school early on Spy Wednesday and she was still ensconced. Hanna and Emmet lurked about the house, that was so large and silent without her. It all looked strange and unconnected: the turn of the bannisters at the top of the stairs, the small study with its light bulb gone, the line of damp on the dining room wallpaper inching up through a grove of bamboo.
This is so gently humorous and yet starkly truthful. The reader has a powerful sense of the difficulties this presents for the younger children. But it is outdoors that this writing is its most beguiling and impressive. The description of the Green Road is lovely, more than that it evokes everything beautiful, mystical and ancient about Irish stories. The men and women in this book inhabit a real world, each section deals with the move away from Rosaleen, each separate young person moving off to make their own mistakes – sometimes we don’t know quite what they are but we recognise the consequences and then in the second section their return for one final Christmas before Rosaleen sells the house, the build up to the finale being both dramatic and poignant. Constance, the elder daughter seems to have made similar mistakes to those her mother made, and there is a tremendously telling section when she is in a hospital being checked for breast cancer. Here the writing becomes oblique, diminishing each woman to a figure in a baggy gown, with fear and grief, misunderstanding and panic, probably exactly how it is in real life.
the illuminations is also divided into sections, some dealing with Anne’s growing dementia, her muddled story telling, her photography, her strangely mixed up life partly in Canada, then in New York and then Glasgow and Blackpool. Every now and then we switch heart-stoppingly to Luke, her grandson, serving in Helmand province. The description of the fire-fight in the dark, the endless convoys waiting for the road to have been cleared of IEDs, the heat and the soldiers joshing each other, especially as this is frequently news in the UK, so you get the women’s reaction and the letters from Camp Bastion, these add tension to an otherwise quite calming scene of an old lady whose memory is slowly unravelling. It is only towards the very end when she goes with her grandson to Blackpool to see the illuminations turned on, that the threads begin to tie up together and some sense of her reality breaks through.
In both these books the relationship between parent and offspring is perceptively and delicately drawn. The perspective that children have of their parent, whether right or wrong or the parent of her offspring for better or worse, these are the dilemmas that strike us all at one time or another for we are all children and then some of us are parents, we all make mistakes and we could all be kinder to ourselves and to our families. These families are unhappy is ways totally different from the family in Anne Tyler’s novels, but just as believable and it has to be admitted that it is rather a relief to have read these two books as an antidote to the harrowing experience of the previous one.