The Gathering by Anne Enright

 

Anne Enright pic
“None of the Irish writers I know are afraid of the pleasure of the sentence.”

If you read the blurb on the back cover you’d get the idea that this is a book about a family gathering for a funeral;  and, like me, you’d think you know what it’s about – it seems such a cliched reason for a book – but the actual ‘gathering’ doesn’t happen until Chap 30 (out of 39) and a lot of fabulous stuff happens before chap 30. This book has been unread on my shelf for four years because I thought I knew what it would be like. I was wrong.

Enright has employed this same idea recently in The Green Road, although in that book the event is a house-sale;  but still a family gathers. Anne Enright is big on families.

And this is Anne Enright on big Irish families:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is over invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends of course, and, like trends, they shift . Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them – at least I do. The imponderable pain of my mother, against which I have hardened my heart. Just one glass over the odds and I will thump the table, like the rest of them, and howl for her too.

Both these books, The Green Road and The Gathering are similar in structure. She places an event at the nut of her tale and weaves around it threads of people, their plights and joys, pasts and presents until you have something like a doily of a story. A weave of narratives around a perfect whole. In one masterful chapter two of her characters, Ada Merriman, the narrator’s grandmother, and the man, Lambert Nugent, who has always loved her, and who she should’ve loved, but didn’t, touch. She a hand on his shoulder, he a hand on her hip; and the narrator, a writer, the granddaughter, Veronica, who admits to writing all this down, describes what might have happened had both their hands moved a little further, a little more truthfully until they were on the floor with him inside her. The reader certainly wants this to happen and Enright, having us in mind, gives it to us. It’s satisfying. It didn’t happen in the story, only on the page, but satisfying nonetheless.

Hovering above for most of the book, like a drone, is the little mystery Enright, (Veronica?) tells us in the very first line: something happened in Ada’s house when Veronica was eight and her brother, Liam, the corpse at the centre of this doily, was nine. Something happened that little Veronica shockingly saw.

The Hegertys are a big clan: the nine surviving children, there were more births than survivors, gather for the funeral of one of their own and Veronica needs to bare witness to an uncertain event. She remembers it but as something so improbable – she was very young -way outside her, then, experience that now, as an adult, it’s entirely possible, she thinks, that it might not have happened at all.

the Gathering Booker pic
Pleased as punch; and rightly so.
The Hegertys were “dragged-up”. They were entirely “free range”. But this is all pre-80s, pre-parenting, pre-how-to books, pre-child murders, pre-4-wheel-drives to school; pre-dry cleaning plastic as death-bags: pre-fear, when us baby-boomers were all “free-range”, and all “dragged up.” If you are over 50 you probably know what this is like. 
Anne Enright writes sentences chock-full of meaning, or insight, or revelation; and even her linking sentences between chock-full sentences are chock-full. But then she throws in a little doosey: It is like Christmas in Hades, and I laugh and think she is going to suck the universe dry of all the good lines leaving us in her wake scrabbling for left-overs.
She uses dialogue to re-assure us that these people are complicated, but real:
‘Thanks,’ he says.
‘What?’
‘Thanks for staying with me.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’
‘No. Really.’
‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
and prose for more meaningful and ‘under-the-surface’ revelations:
I thought about this, as I sat in the Shelbourne bar – that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.
The doily book, The Green Road, was written in 2014, and it’s a book Enright calls “more of a proper book” insinuating that the other doily book, this one, The Gathering, written in 2006, is not. I know what she means. The Green Road is tighter, neater, more confident, and adventurous, the pattern more stable; this one is loose, equally compelling and recognisable, but free-range and at the same time narrow in its world; but for lovers of contemporary literary fiction, so rewarding.
So, yes, a lot happens to Veronica, the narrator, before the point of it all; and near the end the mystery is revealed; then the gathering itself; but Enright keeps a little ‘gasp’ to send you off into the last little chapters when, by the end, you realise it was all, not about a family, but about a woman, coming to turns with hers:
God, I hate my family, these people I never chose to love but love all the some.   
I’ve never read another author’s work back to back before. I have another Anne Enright book on my shelf: The Forgotten Waltz (2011); that might be next. It’s turning into a little Anne Enright Reading Frenzy. Read her yourself and see why.
You can find The Gathering in various formats, including audible and audio CD, here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.