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.