The Gathering by Anne Enright is her fourth book. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.
The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968.
The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.
I’m sorry to say that I think The Gathering is one of the most dreary books I’ve read. It’s a dark and disturbing novel about a dysfunctional family. I didn’t enjoy it, which is a shame as it’s a book that’s been on my shelves since 2008 and one I chose to read this month as part of Reading Ireland Month, an event to ‘to celebrate the wealth and breadth and general awesomeness of Irish cultural life.’
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. 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. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.
The narrator is Veronica Hegarty and it is through her eyes that the Hegarty family story is told as they gather at her brother’s wake in Dublin. Liam, an alcoholic, had committed suicide by putting rocks into his pockets and walking into the sea at Brighton. The characterisation is fantastic and I had no difficulty seeing the people in my mind’s eye; the descriptions of their appearance and personalities are strong and detailed.
But how reliable is Veronica’s memory? She mixes up memories of herself and her sister for example and there is quite a lot that you have to read between the lines. There aren’t many certain facts, for example how much truth is there in Veronica’s account of the early years of her grandparents’ married life and of their friend Lambert Nugent? She relates episodes that I’m sure they wouldn’t have told their granddaughter. At one point Veronica does say:
It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.
It takes a long time before Veronica finally gets to say what happened and even then there is ambiguity. Veronica cannot stick to a chronology and describes events haphazardly just as they come to her mind. A stream of thoughts just pour out of her – which is all very well because that is how the mind works. But I found it made the text disjointed as it moved swiftly backwards and forwards.
As the blurb says it is about ‘thwarted lust and limitless desire‘ and the focus is on the body, on death, on sex and sexual abuse, on alcoholism, on insanity and on secrets and betrayal, but not much about love. At times I found it depressing or boring.
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (20 Mar. 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0099501635
- ISBN-13: 978-0099501633
When I finished The Gathering I wondered about the other books that were listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 – were the other books equally as depressing? This is what the judges thought about The Gathering:
Judges applauded The Gathering for its controlled prose, sentence by sentence. They were impressed by its figurative language. They wondered at how unflinching Enright was in the face of what was pretty grim, unappealing material. Would the subject matter deter readers? asked one judge. Was that a literary question? asked another.
So, it was the language they liked and I can see what they found to applaud there. But I also thought that I had found the unappealing material a deterrent.
Enright’s novel had the support in depth and range other titles were not able to muster. It is, perhaps, a book people admire rather than immediately warm to, and this admiration won the day for her. Admiration for the unflinching ferocity of her vision and her skill with figurative language, admiration for the way in which she conveys feeling in carefully modulated prose which, sentence for sentence, matches anything being written in English today. Together we were happy to award her the prize on that basis. It was a collegiate decision. That is how it should be for the Man Booker.
Again I can see where they are coming from, but I prefer books that I can warm to as well as admire and I’m sorry but I just couldn’t warm to The Gathering, although I can admire its skill.
The other books on the shortlist were:
- Darkmans by Nicola Barker – a book about love and jealousy and also about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody.
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid – it traces the life and love of Changez, an idealistic young Muslim man who leaves Pakistan to pursue his education in the US.
- Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – a tale of survival by story set in Bougainville in 1991, a small village on a lush tropical island in the South Pacific where the horror of civil war lurked. Mr Watts introduces the children to Mr Dickens’ Great Expectations.
- Animal’s People by Indra Sinah – ever since he can remember, Animal has gone on all fours, the catastrophic result of what happened on That Night when, thanks to an American chemical company, the Apocalypse visited his slum.
- On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan – It is June 1962. In a hotel on the Dorset coast, overlooking Chesil Beach, Edward and Florence, who got married that morning, are sitting down to dinner in their room. Neither is entirely able to suppress their anxieties about the wedding night to come.
They sound mainly a depressing bunch of books. I read On Chesil Beach, in 2007 and didn’t blog about it in detail. As I remember it, it is a sad book too, but I loved it. I have Mister Pip waiting to be read.