Rosaleen Madigan loves her four adult children but, it has to be said, she has a pretty funny way of showing it. Widowed and wounded, she knows she shouldn't be so cantankerous or sharp with them but it's as if her love for them brings out the worst in her. Handsome Dan, destined for the priesthood (Rosaleen took to her bed when she learned of his plan), was waylaid by homosexuality and the New York art world during the 1980s and the onset of Aids. It'd be fair to say he's Rosaleen's favourite, although no more deserving of the role than his siblings.

Poor Hannah, she used to be such a fine actress but now she has a baby, the acting jobs have dried up and she plugs the great gaps in her life with white wine. Constance is the least outwardly disturbed - she married well, has a couple of kids and still lives in the small County Clare town they grew up in. Today, she's her mother's whipping boy, which mostly she takes on the chin, she's not the sort of woman to make a fuss.

As for Emmet, he ran away to work on aid projects in some of the word's most troubled regions. He's been trying to save the world for years. Unfortunately for him the world doesn't really want to be saved or, perhaps, it's past helping. "Since the money came in, Ireland depressed Emmet in a whole new way. The house prices depressed him. The handbag thing and the latte thing, the Aren't We All Brilliant thing, they all depressed him too."

To some degree, all of the Madigans are disappointed by life, in themselves and each other.

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Booker Prize winner Anne Enright has been described as being "addicted to the truth of things" and her sharp observations provide poignant commentary on the human condition. Her turn of phrase is immaculate, poetic, yet never clever simply for the sake of it. Lines such as, "The yellow flowers gave up a clump of pale petals and they sighed as they hit the mantelpiece" resonate throughout.

The first half of the narrative follows each of the children in various phases of their lives, jumping between decades and across continents, the reader following along, putting the pieces of this family puzzle together. Then, in the second part, Enright weaves the fractured strands together, bringing the adult children home for Christmas, reluctantly, en masse. When you watch their mother pick away at them all, it's no surprise they've resisted gathering for so long but Rosaleen draws them back with the bait that she's selling the old family home.

"And there they were. It was Christmas like the ones they remembered from the old days - and how could they forget how dinner always ended? It was traditional, you might say, Rosaleen got upset."

But to break with tradition, instead of going off up to bed, her eyes filled with tears, Rosaleen takes a long walk in the freezing cold, along her beloved green road, "to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and fury".

And it is only when faced with the prospect of losing their mother that the children are able to recall glimmers of the woman she once was, the proud, passionate poetry-quoting dramatic.

Filled with tender hooks, this sad, honest book is about the nature of family and the inevitability of change - whether we seek it, fight it or try to avoid it.

The Green Road
by Anne Enright
(Jonathan Cape $36.99)

Elisabeth Easther is an Auckland reviewer.

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- Canvas