Oh Anne Enright, how masterful you are! You took a seemingly clichéd Irish scenario and turned it on its head to create a wonderfully insightful story of abandonment, loneliness and compassion. Yes, yes, on the surface it may seem that we’ve all been here before – dysfunctional family, talk of the priesthood, alcoholism, manipulative mothers, a small Irish town – but the author’s aphoristic prose will shock and delight in equal measure.
The novel is in two parts – Leaving and Coming Home. In ‘Leaving’ the chapters could easily stand alone as short stories, such is their evocation of time and place. It’s here we meet the Madigan family one by one at different points in their lives. The beauty of these fragments is that the reader gets to know each sibling better than they know each other and when finally they all gather for a Christmas reunion in ‘Coming Home” there is something quite delicious about having this knowledge.
Christmas Day does not go well. There is something missing in each of the children – an empathy, a willingness to love, a sense of feeling loved, – how do they fill that gap? Their mother Rosaleen is demanding and feels abandoned by her ungrateful children. Readers will recoil from her manipulations or will have sympathy for a woman who gave up her own dreams to rear a family. The interactions in this section read like a stageplay and everyone falls easily into their role – the adored prodigal son, the “put – upon” daughter, etc.
Is this book bleak and dreary? Not at all – there is a wry humour and an abundance of acutely observed situations that readers will find provocative and amusing. There is no neat tying up of loose ends but you will feel satisfied with the glimmers of love and better understanding.