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.