The Gathering, by Anne Enright

by admin on June 27, 2011

The Gathering, by Anne EnrightThe Gathering is a small and short book; my version is only 261 pages long. Yet it is a huge novel, covering a lot of ground, with lots of dept and full of haunting insights and smaller tales within the tale. It is no coincidence that Anne Enright, the excellent and very Irish writer, won the Man Booker prize in 2007 for this delightful novel – rather it was well deserved.

The Gathering is a moving and very evocative portrait of a large Irish family, the Hegarty clan. It is a clan that – like all clans – is haunted by the past. Now the nine surviving Hegarty siblings gather together in the family home in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam and in this situation the past aligns itself yet again more closely to the present. Memories push their way into thoughts; rooms, light and things become signs and tokens of persons, tales and actions; expressions, conversations and movements take on deeper meanings , meanings with roots somewhere deep in the past. It seems impossible not to relate to the past – it seemingly is insistent on presence in the here and now. Past and present meets, for us, mainly in the recollections of Liam’s sister Veronica who in observance of a life now ended recalls the past – perhaps real, perhaps imagined – and tries to understand all the many whys and hows of Liam’s life and death.

But sorrow is not only understanding. At least it is not only understanding, and, indeed, perhaps mostly not understanding. Sorrow is pain, grief, emotion, sadness and emptiness that penetrate brain and heart. And in the case of Veronica, it is to a large extent what can perhaps best be characterized as rage. And Veronica rages; against her mother, her husband, her sisters, her children and her brother. And gradually, increasingly as the external sources of her rage dries up like a well drained lake, her rage encompasses herself.

Veronica comes from a strange family. The Hegarty clan is obsessed with sex, and penises in particular, and her self-loathing in the sexual act is matched only by her loathing for her wealthy husband Tom:

“I am saying that, the year you sent us away, your dead son was interfered with, when you were not there to comfort or protect him, and that interference was enough to send him on a path that ends in the box downstairs. That is what I am saying, if you want to know.”

“.. I have disturbed the ghosts. They are outside the door of the room, now, as the ghosts of my childhood once were; they are behind the same door. Their story is there, out on the landing of Griffith Way, waiting for me one more time.”

Enright lets us into a strange world in an unusual fashion. Reading The Gathering, a picture – confused, unclear, but still – emerges where it seems Veronica feels a deeper connection to her lost brother than the rest of her family. “I am the one who has lost something that cannot be replaced.” But why did Liam die? Why is she mourning him now? Why didn’t she die? Why did she survive the dysfunctional Hegarty family life? Why was it that Liam that grew up to become an alcoholic who, one day seemingly like most days, put a handful of stones in his pockets, took off his socks and underwear, and walked off a Brighton pier?

Veronica constructs and re-constructs her family – rife as it was with abuse, alcohol, deep secrets, and hurt. She seemingly cannot resist. Gradually she is drawn back into that which she once gleefully and victoriously escaped. Into the mystery that lurks there and the marks it left. If Liam exposed the lie, Victoria will expose the truth of it.

The Gathering is a family story that cuts deep and leaves scars. It reminds of situations, emotions, and reactions most people have encountered in their own lives, and masterfully uses these as a basis for a journey deep into that presence of past in the present and the difficulties of moving beyond. It is written in excellent, clear prose but with considerable depth, making the story layered and convoluted. A delightful book that deserves – and to some extent requires – several readings. The Gathering is a pleasure to read, full of melancholic love and rage unflinchingly explored by the talented Anne Enright, who has exceptional gifts for observation and deduction.

Praise:

“You will love this book or loathe it. It doesn’t take prisoners, it doesn’t simper or seek to be liked. Abrasively honest and toweringly moving, it grabs and shakes you, rabbiting on in a manic monologue, comical, tragic, lost and profound.” — The Scotsman

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