THE GREEN ROAD, by Anne Enright. W.W. Norton & Company, 309 pp., $26.95.
To paraphrase poet Philip Larkin: They mess you up, your mum and dad. It certainly wouldn't come as news to the four Madigan siblings, protagonists of Anne Enright's new novel, "The Green Road," who spend a lifetime trying to understand -- or escape -- their moody, high-maintenance mother, Rosaleen. Beginning in 1980 in western Ireland, and zooming in on the adult Madigans at various points and places in their lives, "The Green Road" ripples with fierce resentments and glows with tenderness. Anyone who has experienced the Gordian knot of family life will recognize the complex interplay of emotions in these beautifully rendered pages.
"The Green Road" opens in 1980, when Dan Madigan, his mother's favorite, announces at Palm Sunday dinner that he intends to become a priest, causing Rosaleen to moan and weep and take to bed for two weeks -- "the horizontal solution, as Dan liked to call it." We witness the scene from the perspective of sensitive 12-year-old Hanna, as Emmet snorts into his dinner, and Constance "bashed about doing the dishes," furious she has missed the bus back to Dublin. Their father excuses himself from dessert and goes out, with "no opinions that anyone could discern." Now we've been properly introduced.
When next we meet Dan it's 1991, and he is in New York, engaged to a woman and sleeping with men, as the AIDS epidemic rages. Constance we re-encounter in Ireland in 1997; she has a family now, and a sexless marriage, and has gone for an exam after finding a lump in her breast. In 2002 Emmet is in Mali, where his relationship with a fellow aid worker comes asunder when she brings a stray dog into the house, upsetting the Muslim servants. Each chapter advances our understanding of these characters while functioning as a self-contained story in its own right.
Enright, who lives in Dublin and won the Man Booker Prize for her 2007 novel, "The Gathering," reunites the family in Ireland in 2005, after their father has died and Rosaleen announces she is selling the house. It is Christmas, rather predictably, but Enright perfectly captures how families bring out the child and the adult in each of us. Here is Hanna observing Dan: "He had grown into himself, and grown also into some version of a gay man that she might recognise. Her knowledge of him came from two directions and met in the human being sitting at the table." Enright doesn't give us a happy ending, exactly -- she's too fiercely honest -- but she does acknowledge how time and age alter things. It has to be enough.