Sunday, October 5, 2008

Anne Enright's The Gathering

I'm making slow progress through the various piles of books "decorating" our house these days. But I won't apologize for taking over a week to finish Anne Enright's The Gathering. Last year's Man Booker winner, this book requires time, time to come to terms with the narrator's startling images, metaphors and juxtapositions. Often, I would put the novel on my lap to marvel at the precision of a description or to test her claims against my experience. Imagine how I felt, for example, the oldest of twelve myself (two adopted) at reading this: There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six. There were girls with seven or eight -- which was thought a little enthusiastic -- and then there were the pathetic ones like me, who had parents that were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit (25). The conversational build-up to that deliberately vulgar accusation leaves the reader unprepared for its blunt force. This narrator is excoriatingly honest, angry at she knows not quite what, but directing her blistering descriptions most often at her aged mother (protected through the years by the family mantra Don't tell Mammy) and her professionally busy husband. Here's an example of the latter, a description of the sex they have the night of her brother's wake: as if Liam's death had blown all the cobwebs away: the fuss and the kids and the big, busy job and the late nights spent strenuously not sleeping with other women. He was getting back to basics: telling me that he loved me, telling me that my brother might be dead but that he was very much alive. Exercising his right. I love my husband, but I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered. (39-40)

The narrative is triggered by the death of Liam, closest brother in Veronica (the narrator)'s large Catholic family (twelve stair-step siblings), the brother whose constant mis-steps and chronic alcoholism have long foretold an early death. As she takes care of funeral arrangements, collects the body, breaks the news to, and consoles her mother, and calls the family together, the narrator combs through her memories and further back through her imagination to finally identify and name the root cause of her brother's and her own lifetime unhappiness -- the dark, perhaps open, secret about her grandmother's friend, jokingly referred to as Nolly May (a sly reference to the Latin, Noli me tangere, or Do not touch).

This kind of narrative is old territory for me -- I wrote my dissertation on novels featuring the loss of a parent and the ensuing sorting-out, life-storying/writing undertaken by the adult child. But this novel offers something that few others do in family narratives of loss, memory, and discovery of long-hidden events (Nicola King territory -- her Memory, Narrative, Identity: Remembering the Self is an important and useful work in this field if you're interested): it describes a family whose numbers match mine almost exactly. And while my assessment of my childhood and my family's relationships is much more positive than Veronica's, I recognize some of the peculiarities of the large family, and I identify with some of her ambivalence. Perhaps even some of the anger and resentment was mine ten or fifteen years ago, closer to her age.
Speaking of her family at one point, she says, Three dead -- we are nearly a normal family now. A couple more and we will be just the right size (184). It would take more anger and resentment than I could muster to make such a statement, having lost two siblings myself already. It would take a long-simmering anger and the distance of some long-repressed denials, I suspect, and my suspicions turn out to be justified.
She remembers once speaking with a fellow who was the last of twenty-one and comments on the similarities between big families:
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. The imponderable pain of my mother, against which I have hardened my heart. Just one glass over the odds and I will thump the table, like the rest of them, and howl for her too. (184)
Again, while I spot similarities with my family here, it's most evident in her intensity of analysis, and in the conviction that she has experienced something particularly worthy of that analysis, something special, as it is, to only those from the weird territory of the big family.
Her litany of what her mother has made over the years includes 1)Cups of tea but strange to say, she only made two alcoholics, of the actual would-you-ever-try-AA variety. But all the Hegartys are thirsty. All the Hegartys would kill for a decent cup of tea. (I could say the same of my own family -- we're big on the cuppas) 2) Descendants although Most of the girls are genetic culs-de-sac and who would blame them 3) Money (not much) 4) Heterosexuals Are you all straight?' my friend Frank once said to me in tones of great disbelief.
Have you caught the flavour of this novel yet? Let me try one more phrase to pull you in to the seduction of its wise, bitter, sad wonders: I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass (39).


  1. This one sounds amazing, thanks for the review! I will have to pick it up. I am just barely starting to get back on my feet reading after the boys, 2 as of Tuesday. The real danger for me is bedtime reading turning into 1 am, then I'm useless at home and work!

    I am interested to see what you say about the new(?) David Sedaris. My brother adores him, I can't get past the cynical unkindness of his Santaland Diaries. But I do love hearing him on NPR.

  2. I'm impatient to get to the Sedaris as well -- darn this working-for-a-living! I'm always moved by how he navigates that very thin line between laughter and pain.
    Happy Birthday to your boys -- must be almost impossible to find reading time between 3 wee ones and paid work. . . and dangerous to substitute reading for sleep!