Review of "The Gathering" by Anne Enright
The Gathering is a fearless scrutiny of family life; a confronting treatment of love, grief and death. Ostensibly, it’s about a gathering to mourn the suicide of Veronica Hegarty’s sibling, Liam. But its true center is the gathering of all Veronica's threads of grief (detonated by this suicide) into a palpable, physical trauma: A grief that is “biological, idiot, timeless” and “almost genital”; a grief that swallows everything in her world. It is a work of immense intensity and depth, imaged and writ large in the protagonist’s bitter arousals and spites:
This is how I live my life since Liam died. I stay up all night. I write, or I don’t write. I walk the house. Nothing settles here. Not even the dust.
I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it.
Apart from Liam’s ghost, nothing whispers and everything roars in Ms Enright’s work. So long as this intensity can be tolerated, this novel offers a profound richness.
The narrative depth is extraordinary. Modest of plot, the work is bounteous of descriptive and linguistic beauty. Propelled by Veronica’s urge to know and tell the truth – about suicides, secrets, siblings, mothers, molestations, fights, abuses, death and other terrors – the novel lingers and probes almost to the point of awkwardness. The narrator obsesses over her world, anatomising everything, forcing herself to watch movies of her own pain. Through this intensity and depth and the prosaic voice, the base pornography of daily life is turned into a decorated ritual, something to behold and ponder:
I am so angry I have a second view of the kitchen, a high view, looking down: me with one wet sleeve rolled up, my bare forearm lying flat on the table, and on the other side of the table, my mother, cruciform, her head drooping from the little white triangle of her bare neck.
And so we watch – again and again – the story of Ada and Nugent in the Belvedere. By her own admission, Veronica can’t get past it:
The only things I am sure of are the things I never saw – my little blasphemies – Ada and Charlie in their marriage bed, her pubis like the breast of an underfed chicken under his large hand, or the sad weight of his tackle as she reaches under his long belly to pull him closer in. The sun in the flowered curtains. Happiness.
Familial dysfunction drips from every surface of The Gathering, infecting Veronica’s relationships with her mother, children, siblings and husband. And plainly this is one of the novel’s key themes. But beneath this – propelling this - there is a constant blending of the exalted and profane in the novel, and it is this that delivers the most absorbing thematic point: that love and death function as both a comfort and a terror:
what my husband has always wanted, and the thing I will not give him, is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred. It is sometimes the same thing.
We see, too, that life is, at its essence, pointless, and – like all of us enduring it - constantly ossifying. The “watermark of failure” lies all about Veronica and her family:
… the usual grief of men when they find that they have done nothing, and there is nothing left for them to do.
… the dour narcissism of the ordinary man, and all his acts of self-love were both subtle and exact.
For all this, though, the greatest strength of Ms Enright’s novel lies in the astonishing richness of its language; the metaphorical bloom of its voice; the narrator’s ability to simultaneously inhabit bleakness and agony and grief and humor and humanness. Witness this condemnatory monologue against Veronica’s mother:
I have not forgiven her for my sister Margaret who we called Midge, until she died, aged forty-two, from pancreatic cancer. I do not forgive her my beautiful, drifting sister Bea. I do not forgive her my first brother Ernest, who was a priest in Peru, until he became a lapsed priest in Peru. I do not forgive her my brother Stevie, who is a little angel in heaven. I do not forgive her the whole tedious litany of Midge, Bea, Ernest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice and the twins, Ivor and Jem.
Behold the breathless sensuousness:
Such a miracle, at the end of the Brighton line, with the town stacked behind me, and behind that all the weight of England, in her smoke and light, jammed to a halt here, just here, by the wide smell of the sea.
And here the sparsity, the frugality, that accompanies the opening of the Ada/Lambert backstory:
Lambert Nugent first saw my grandmother Ada Merriman in a hotel foyer in 1925. This is the moment I choose. It was seven o’clock in the evening. She was nineteen, he was twenty-three.
But the intensity that burns, endlessly. Is it too much? Does it asphyxiate the work?
This novel is not intended for a reader likely to reach that conclusion, and Ms Enright drives past that particular exit very early in the novel. The Gathering is, in many ways, an uncomfortable read. It’s a concentrated, visceral experience that sometimes becomes astringent. If this experience is denied at a single point, it must be denied at all points. But to do this would be to strip the novel of its essence, to empty it completely. For without the intensity, fury and pain that power it, this novel can have no existence.