The Gathering by Anne Enright

Back cover blurb, masquerading as synopsis:

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968. “The Gathering” is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

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  1. malcolmbbc

     /  March 18, 2011

    “It wasn’t the drink that killed him … it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house” (from the back cover blurb, masquerading as synopsis).

    Sarah’s witty throwaway has encouraged me to think that of course, we don’t actually know why Liam has killed himself. We can’t, because he has left nothing behind to explain his own feelings.

    Our understanding is based only upon Veronica’s own disturbed memories and interpretations. The childhood abuse has doubtless had an effect upon Liam’s life; so too have the reactions too it (or lack of reaction) from others in the family. Veronica’s confused responses to Liam’s death reflect shock and guilt for the fact that she did not act earlier. By this time, it is perhaps too late – her own relationships are also suffering.

    So, the portrayal is perhaps believable but undeniably miserable. I can’t tell from the ending of the book whether Veronica decides to go home or to fly off to some random destination. In a sense, she is at the same point as Liam was before the start of the book … will she give up her existing life, or struggle on?

  2. moirabbc

     /  March 17, 2011

    I felt frustrated by this book and initially was prepared to regard it as another strange Booker choice. However, like some of the others, this hasty opinion niggled at me and the novel continued to occupy my thoughts. Revelations and revisions were nudged along by a discussion with Margaret R who was a passionate advocate for the novel.
    It is a very unsettling portrayal of grief and remembrance. I did not have such a negative reaction to Veronica – yes, she is self-obsessed and shocks the reader with her many barbs and visceral images of male sexuality. Grief IS often completely and overwhelmingly absorbing. Also, I think that grief can completely unhinge someone’s feelings about sex causing huge ambivalence. On the one hand, it can seem indecent to the lost one’s memory to be sexual, but there can be a great need for the life-affirmation of sexual activity to give distance from death. I believe the book is a genuine attempt to portray the disturbance and discomforting relationship between sex and death.
    The irritation I felt about the half-remembered and possibly fabricated childhood memories revealed in a torrential jumble has faded. Trying to recover any childhood memories can be like grasping at phantoms in a swirling fog, especially damaging ones prompted by emotional trauma.
    I wanted to know much more about Liam than was revealed but the point is that Veronica had become estranged from him and believes that, in his eyes, she has sold out to material comfort.
    The Gathering seems to wriggle obstructively when being written about and this may be one of its merits. Perhaps it deserved its Booker prize.

  3. Richard

     /  March 16, 2011

    This novel really annoyed me.

    I did not empathize with the narrator who I found self-regarding, belligerent and misandrous, yet I felt this was how Anne Enright wanted Veronica to appear.

    I grew more and more frustrated with the lack of any concrete evidence for what had actually happened to Veronica, while understanding, that having sublimated her traumatic past, the guilt and grief brought on by her brother’s suicide left her re-writing her life in search of something real to hang on to.

    I felt deeply uncomfortable with a narrator who used someone else’s experience of sexual abuse to dramatize her own anguish while admiring the way a whole spectrum of sexual politics and forms of abuse were explored across generations and in a wide variety of relationships.

    I considered the ending to be inconclusive and something of a letdown while yet again thinking that was the point – life does not have to provide closure, for characters in novels or for readers.

    I cringed at some of the observations. “You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them” and “he sat like someone who wasn’t getting any sex” are just two examples that to my mind don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. Yet there are some finely written episodes in this novel as Veronica’s dramatic monologue reveals just how deeply introverted she is and how destructive of her sense of self she found her experience of grief to be.

    In the end though what really annoyed me the most about this novel was, that having read it twice and both times found it deeply alienating, I am still left with the nagging suspicion that it is a much better book than I am able or willing to admit.

  4. michelebbc

     /  March 16, 2011

    Screwed up irish family. Gradual revelations and flashbacks of abuse, alcoholism and various other horrors. Overuse of the word tumescent. As you may have gathered I thoroughly disliked this book. I thought/hoped this misery fiction was a fad that had died out.

    If you enjoyed this you may also like The Secret Scripture.

  5. I did not enjoy reading this novel, but have been unable to dismiss it out of hand. Accepting that the central themes of child abuse and grief may be well executed (I do not feel qualified to judge) yet from a literary point of view little appears to be achieved. Character development is lacking, there is no great insight into the human condition, and no resolution, perhaps rightly, materialises.

    However, even in light of a central character whom I found, frankly, unbelievable, there is something about the way that Enright distances herself from the narrative voice that impresses. A characteristic you might expect of a first person narrative, but often (whether by accident or design) the author can be perceived in the background.

    I did not feel Enright’s presence here, and this gives her the freedom to mess with any number of expectations, in terms of structure, language and readerly preconceptions, almost without fear of critical censure.

  1. The Gathering – Anne Enright « A Rat in the Book Pile

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