Anne Enright: The Gathering
Although it’s a stereotype, sometimes it seems all an Irish writer has to do is take a populous family, spice it up with alcoholism, suicide, some sexual abuse, and then garnish it with an undercurrent of Catholicism. Anne Enright takes this formula in The Gathering and bleaches the prose to the point that all colour is removed. If the spicy topics are grim by nature, then this novel is all the more grim thanks to its unrelenting bleak outlook on life.
Liam Hegarty has went the way of Woolf, weighing himself down with stones and drowning. After this, the remaining nine siblings of the family (three are dead, another seven miscarried) gather in Dublin for his wake. Closest to him is Veronica, our narrator, and The Gathering follows her attempt to confront an event, in 1968, she admits she is “not sure if it really did happen”. It’s this turning point in their lives that Veronica believes has led to her brother’s alcoholism and eventual suicide at forty.
Further to the contemporary story (which amounts to collecting Liam’s body and the funeral) Veronica Hegarty’s story heads back to 1925, where she imagines a love triangle between her grandmother and the two men vying for her heart – Charlie Spillane and Lambert Nugent – that proves the seed for Liam’s later decline. The hazy nature of that time, which Veronica couldn’t possibly know, is readily acknowledge and nicely given substance:
He must be reassembled; click clack; his muscles hooked to bone and wrapped with fat, the whole skinned over and dressed in a suit of navy or brown – something about the cut of the lapels, maybe that is a little too sharp, and the smell on his hands would be already a little finer than carbolic.
It all seems good, the family saga stripped to the essentials (“I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.”) and the parallel storylines, both of which are (or are not) imagined, that intersect. The only problem is that it’s boring to read. While there’s nothing wrong with Veronica’s merciless grey outlook she is also self-obsessed to the point of wrapping herself in her own story, the endless navel gazing proving tedious along with a phallic preoccupation that goes without explanation. One wonders if she isn’t just using her brother’s death to transfer her own history of sexual abuse to him in an attempt to move on with her life. But, if so, there’s no hint that her life has come to an obstacle. She has a family, she seems grateful – what’s the problem? Why so bleak?
The Gathering is probably the most pessimistic book on the longlist and seems to be collecting a wave of mixed reviews. Personally, I found reading it a fatiguing experience. There’s plenty of nice observations throughout on such topics as the nature of sex, travel, family, but there’s so much more given over to Veronica Hegarty who, rather than tell Liam’s story, seems more comfortable with her own. At least she’s comfortable.
September 1, 2007