Friday, December 7, 2007

A review of The Gathering by Anne Enright

Anne Enright’s The Gathering deserves every ounce of praise it has received, and perhaps a bit more. It’s a family history of the Hegartys, told by Veronica after the death of her brother, Liam. So, and therefore, it is a wake, a stream of consciousness response to bereavement. There are more than shades of Molly Bloom here, as Veronica recounts intimate details of her own and her relatives’ ultimately inconsequential lives. And despite its obvious – and necessary – preoccupation with death and mourning, it is eventually an optimistic work, as optimistic as it can be when we are all revealed as rather inconsequential, temporal additions to the grand scheme of things, a grand scheme which, itself, is neither grand nor, indeed, a scheme. In such a void, we need blame to compensate grief. And after that is duly apportioned, at least we can just get on with it. 

What The gathering is not, by the way, is the kind of book that would appeal to anyone wanting instant gratification, a murder on every page, celebrity, wealth, empty melodrama, character that can be worn, or even axe-grinding. It is not snobbish to say that The Gathering runs kilometres above such pulp. That it deals with the lives of ordinary people in a less than successful family is stated at the outset by the author. 

Of the Hegarty family experience, Veronica writes, “the great thing about being dragged up is that there is no-one to blame. We are entirely free range. We are human beings in the raw. Some survive it better than others, that’s all.” Now this is fascinating, because a little later she asserts that when individual Hegartys feel aggrieved with their lot, there is always someone to blame, “because with the Hegartys a declaration of unhappiness is always a declaration of blame.” So within the family, blame is impossible to apportion, but always applied. Given my own assertion that we often need blame to compensate grief, this leads us to an understanding of Veronica’s diatribe, her frustration at being unable to find someone to blame, but needing to do so in order to cope with the loss. The book, then, is her personal catharsis. 

The beauty of The Gathering is its ability to remind us, fairly constantly, of the dysfunctional nature of the Hegarty family, whilst at the same time recording that most of those involved, in one way or other, find some kind of fulfilment in their lives. Liam, the brother who committed suicide by jumping off Brighton pier, was undoubtedly one of the casualties. And eventually the whole family shares his tragedy and, at the very end, ride through and past it. One aspect of the Hegartys is particularly enigmatic, however, and that is their relation to religion. There’s a priest, now an ex-priest, if that is possible, in the family and, at least nominally, they are Catholics. But the religiosity in Veronica’s narrative is less than convincing and hints at the grudging, though perhaps she cannot admit this, even to herself. If she were still practising, she would be more deferential. If she had rejected her faith, she would be more cynical. And if she were a sceptic, her attacks would be more vehement. 

The next time I read The Gathering, I will be careful to note references to religion, since it remains an enigmatic aspect of Veronica’s character. As Veronica’s narration progresses, it feels like she is getting things off her chest, a prosaic enough reaction to bereavement. By the end, we are confident that she has achieved her goal and that she will approach at least the next few days of her life with renewed vigour. Until, perhaps, she is plunged again into the miry uniqueness of who she is, its unacceptability, and its inevitability. For that is who we are. Choice is not ours. 

View this book on amazon The Gathering

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