The Gathering Anne Enright
By Anne Enright
Black Cat, 261 pages, $17.50
Anne Enright’s Man Booker short-listed novel The Gathering may well polarize readers in the same way childhood experiences divide families into distinct camps. One side will hold its gaze and sit mucho satisfied at the table, another group with less robust constitutions may be unable to confront what it offers and shiver away from it. A third salivating group (likely young writers) will declare a willingness to clamber over moving rocks, minus essential organs, for a similar ability to write such incredible sentences.
This book is more of a perturbing gulp than a difficult read, with writing that hoofs you in the gut no matter how much you may wish to rail against it. Yet I have to confess that this novel left me quite pickled.
Enright’s last novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, sent us milling into the nether regions of Eliza Lynch and 19th century Paraguay; this time, Veronica Hegarty, the narrator of The Gathering, wants to tell us what happened to her brother Liam the summer he was 8 or 9, but she’s not sure if it really did happen. She’s one of a vast quantity of Hegartys, nine still breathing. Here they all are through Veronica’s savage eye in all their grim and peculiar glory: the twins, the priest, the drifter, the drinker, the yank and more.
All that’s rotten, tricky and normal, the roles and righteousness of family members, especially the untouchable Irish mammy, merge together in this novel, alongside the kind of miserable abuse we now know happened (and still happens) in houses, farms and sacristies. It’s all laid out bare and brutal in this tight domestic landscape.
Hegarty’s younger brother, Liam, has just committed suicide in Brighton, England, and she travels from Ireland to bring his body home for burial.
Much of the narrative revolves around her trying to piece together both her memories of Liam and her granny Ada’s choices, leading up to finally acknowledging that she witnessed Liam being sexually abused years ago by her Granny’s landlord and lover, the manipulative Lambert Nugent.
Hegarty is sure of very little in this novel (except what’s wrong with everyone around her and what’s extraordinary about her two daughters). It’s the twisting effect of sudden death. This is where Enright is at her best, mapping out and depicting the unreliability of memory and the peculiarities of how family members perceive one another and how that perception is entirely different under the gaze of the wider world: that no one can really break free of the roles into which they’ve been cast by their families, even after they’re dead.
This is all woven expertly and tautly through the narrative, and praise be for every word of it. She evokes the bald confusion and infected gouges that abuse inflicts on individuals who experience it, and the ripple effect on those who were blind witnesses to what happened. We are left in no doubt that it is Lamb Nugent’s abuse of her brother Liam that sets him on his path to being a lost soul rattling anonymously in an impersonal life in England, while equally damaged and emotionally arrested Hegarty has dragged herself into a suburban middle-class lifejacket. This was a source of resentment and distance between the two of them.
I kept thinking of how many more Liam Hegartys Ireland has lost to English railway stations or underneath bridges or grungy bedsits, and was gratified to see such a man gracing the pages of our literature.
I admire immensely Enright’s ability to tack hard onto her page both the polite and vicious underbelly of family. She doesn’t nice-up the implications of family in child abuse, nor does she shrink from contrasting how the generations paid attention differently to their children. And it’s unlikely you’ll find a more precisely rendered depiction of the hypocrisy, minor hysterics and comforting ritual of an Irish wake.
I understood the necessary emotional flatness Hegarty demonstrates, but what’s more challenging to resolve in Enright’s work is the clever detachment that pervades it, shoves you away from her characters and keeps you tethered outside the gate. The pattern of overwrought descriptions, especially sexual ones that announce themselves as literary artifacts rather than contribute to the characters, becomes wearisome. At times, I’d enough of the gonads and longed for someone to hold a hairbrush or a doorknob.
This repetition, while it often sounds snazzy – no lack of inventive verve in Enright’s words – bangs the reader on the head. Perhaps she wants to shock, but it’s about 30 years too late. A more likely explanation is that Enright’s level of interest in these things exceeds the actual interest demonstrated by her narrator, who, for all she thinks about sex, rarely actually goes upstairs and has any. Enright has hacked away at the traditions of the novel in this book, but she has not left them far enough behind her to be truly shut of them.
A lack of tenderness generally leaves the novel and reader somewhat bereft. Maybe this is the point: to create a book that unapologetically replicates how numbing abuse and an emotionally bankrupt a family can be. It’s almost as if, in her sensible quest to avoid any smidgen of sentimentality, Enright has slammed the lid on the coal bin down so hard that no air can be allowed in. Thus, I found myself simmering lovingly over sentences, wondering if certain descriptions would ever be this funny or well rendered again, but had little interest in learning anything further about Veronica Hegarty.
I walked into things trying to understand why this novel perplexed me so much. My right brain suggested such an effect is a victory for literature and the mark of a great writer, while my left brain petitioned for oxygen and Snoopy to recover.
It doesn’t do to hazard a guess at how relentless difficult families can be, so for those who don’t have one, Enright’s novel will unequivocally give you one.
Anakana Schofield is sprung from England and Ireland to Canada from a long line of short-legged, batty women.