The Gathering, by Anne Enright

Kim sent me this book, so I knew it would be good. And it won the Booker prize last year (more reliable IMHO than the Pulitzer when it comes to identifying books I will like, but less reliable than the Governor General's Award). However, I have to say that I read the first couple of pages with a sigh. Another Irish family drama, I thought, not at all sure I could work up enough interest to get through it. I don't need another lesson in Irish misery: enclosures, potato famine, diaspora, Catholicism, poverty, alcoholism, suffocating families—yeah, yeah, yeah; I get it. Even as I sighed, though, I kept reading.

The cover blurbs compare Enright to any number of contemporary authors (ten, to be exact), but I disagree. In all my reading, I have rarely encountered a character as naked as Veronica, the narrator of this story. I seemed to recognise right off the truth in her voice.

As Veronica, middle child of a large Irish family (12 children, plus 7 miscarriages), prepares to bury her favorite brother Liam, she finds herself excavating an incident from their childhood when she and Liam spent a year at their grandparents’ house. Trying to work out cause and effect, she makes up stories starring her grandmother: maybe she was a prostitute; maybe a servant. Jumping back and forth from the present to a past which will never be past, Veronica teases out memories and family secrets, creates mosaics of meaning and tears them apart.

What Enright accomplishes here is to bind me into this complex family history without my realising it, a family history that feels so true that it may well have been my own. The narrative is presented in so piecemeal a fashion that its power takes me by surprise. We visit and revisit family legends—Liam throwing a knife at their mother; the two children waiting outside St. Ita’s hospital—in terse chapters bristling with short sentences. The story races along as though afraid of bogging down, the emotion all the more powerful for the attempt to outrun it.

I have never read such a true story about growing up in a large family, emotionally true. Granted mine had half as many children, but I recognised all of it: the alliances; the secrets; the little betrayals that later change lives; the difficult prickly love for these people you’d never, left to yourself, actually choose as lifelong companions. Veronica castigates her mother for having so many children, blames her grandmother for producing such a vague and helpless daughter. Kept awake by her squirrelly thoughts, Veronica walks through the sleeping house, soothed by the empty—finally empty!—rooms. It could be my story. Maybe it is.

I feared that Enright would fumble the ending. So many excellent books have awful endings, as though the author simply ran out of steam or plastered on a manufactured epiphany just to get it over with. But Enright doesn’t disappoint. Finally a terrific ending, one that has been earned by all that has come before; one that fits. So, sure, another Irish family drama, but one that seems the truest thing I’ve read all year. One that’s made me look to my own life, and yes, my family, from a different perspective.

And in the end, this is why we can have hundreds, thousands of books even if there are only—what is it they say?—seven basic plots. Good writers can make the oldest story new again.

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