Friday, January 18, 2008

The Gathering, by Anne Enright


I read The Gathering, Irish writer Anne Enright’s Booker-prize-winning novel for my book group, and I’m just dying to discuss it with them...

The Gathering is the story of the gathering of narrator Veronica Hegarty’s large Irish family for the funeral of her wayward brother Liam, who committed suicide by drowning himself in the English sea. The book centers on the family mystery that might have caused Liam’s alcoholic decline and death at age 40.

I felt this was familiar territory, but maybe this is because I’ve read too many Irish family memoirs. But Veronica says it herself, in an amusing yet touching paragraph, that all big families are the same:
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 ever 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.
This book was a challenge for me in many ways. The themes were familiar and the story quite easy to predict. What was different here was the storytelling, which was lyrical and vague and entertaining and maddening, all at the same time. Enright never tells you anything outright, and her narrator is nothing if not unreliable.

In fact, the narrator was my biggest challenge to liking this book. I admit I have trouble with unlikeable characters. This one did a love-hate dance with me. Prickly is a nice word for her. She proclaims her hatreds honestly, but is not honest about herself. I found some things about Veronica very relatable--her sense of humor, and her observations about her family, for example. She is struggling to shed some of the toxic effects of growing up in her big, poor Irish family, by marrying a solidly middle-class capitalist. But she seems to loathe both herself and her husband, and cannot forgive him for seeming to hate her during the sexual act—she believes he hates her because he wants her. Sex is definitely problematic for her; she is obsessed with it, and more than one reviewer has posited that perhaps what she tells us happened to her brother Liam as a child really happened to her, as abuse might be the only possibe cause of her bitterness.

Enright’s prose is impressive, but sometimes preciously so. I was occasionally transported by the writing, but never the story. I really wanted to like this more than I did. It left me feeling unsatisfied, but certain that I’d like to read what Enright does with another subject.

13 comments:

Iliana said...

I really want to read this book. It was one I almost bought when I was in Germany last year and then regretted not getting. Anyway, like you I have a problem with unlikable characters. It's strange really - I mean, the story shouldn't just hinge on the character right? Hmm, must think on this some more. Anyway hope this book will lead to some great discussion at your book group.

litlove said...

How very interesting! I've heard that this is not an easy book to like, and from your description I can see why. I don't mind unlikeable characters too much, but the familiarity of the situation might well get me down. That happy-tragic Irish stuff is a bit pervasive...

Gentle Reader said...

iliana--I wish I didn't have a problem with unlikable characters--same thing, I don't want to judge a book only on that. But it colors the mood of the book for me, I guess...anyway, I bet it will provoke much discussion this week at my group.

litlove--it's a prickly book, rather like the main character, I guess. I probably should read it again, because as I look back I realize that the character's shifting opinions about the other characters, and about what actually happened in the past, may be signposts I missed about what was really going on. I think in my irritation I missed some of the nuances here.

Stefanie said...

I am intrigued by your description of the book and what reading it is like. I had no plans to read this book but now I am feeling tempted.

Tara said...

I don't know if I'll ever read this - but I certainly enjoyed your review. Very intriguing.

Gentle Reader said...

stefanie--if you do read it, I'll be really interested to hear what you think1

tara--thanks--well, if nothing else, the book has provoked some interesting conversations already, even before my book group has met!

Bybee said...

I'm going to suggest this one to my book group. We could get a great discussion going!

melanie said...

Thank you for this! You have put into words exactly what I thought about this book. The vagueness was overwhelming to me. I just finished it and am getting ready to post about it. I'd love to link to your post.
Mel

Gentle Reader said...

bybee--I'll let you know how my group discussion goes on Wednesday :)

melanie--can't wait to read what you have to say, and of course you can link here :)

Matt said...

Thanks for the heads up and the review. The guy at the bookstore recommended this book to me during the last visit. But I hesitated. Now I am a bit interested in toying with what this unreliable narrator have to reveal about the family. I'm wondering if this will read like some of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels, like When We Were Orphans?

Gentle Reader said...

matt--I haven't read When We Were Orphans, so I can't compare the two books, but it's an interesting idea. One of the best things about the book was that, in her unreliability, the narrator let slip clues about the family dynamic, and about her own life, that were more interesting than what was said directly in the narrative. I'd be interested to hear what you think!

Gillg said...

Hi Gentle Reader
Just wondering how your book club discussion went? We are meeting to discuss it this Wednesday night her in Perth, Western Australia.

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