‘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 Gathering, Anne Enright, Pg. 1
Anne Enright’s Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering, brings together the Hegarty family clan who have all gathered for the wake of their beloved son and brother, Liam. Found dead on the shores of Brighton beach, his death comes as a shock and a revelation to the sibling closest to him, Veronica. Written from her perspective, we witness a grieving process which forces Veronica to step back into the hauntingly uncertain past to grasp and gather the strands of her brother’s – and, by extension, the Hegarty’s – frayed life. This means travelling back to the summer she and Liam had to stay at her grandmother, Ada’s, house when they were both eight and nine years old and it even stretches before that, to the possible history between her grandmother and her husband’s mysterious friend, Lambert Nugent.
‘It does not matter. I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings more like’.
The Gathering, Anne Enright, Pg.2
What I loved about Enright’s novel was the stark reality and bleakness of it. Veronica (or perhaps it’s Enright, herself) is so acutely aware of the limitations in her knowledge and the distortions of her childhood memory that much of the book is based on guesswork. It is only about two-thirds through The Gathering that we are confronted with the bitter truth of what happened the summer Liam and Veronica were eight and nine years old, respectively (if we haven’t already guessed). Yet, by this point, the truth becomes a somewhat irrelevant factor in the tragic life of Liam Hegarty.
‘Oh! He was desperate – that is what we will say. He was a terrible messer. He was always full of it. He just couldn’t get it together. He had a good heart. He was all there. He was the best of company, we will say. Oh! but the wit. He had a tongue in his head, there’s no doubt about that! But he was very sensitive. It was a sensitivity thing with Liam. You wanted to look after him. He was not able for this world. Not really’.
The Gathering, Anne Enright, Pg.44
I am reminded, almost, of the Boughton family in Marilynne Robinson’s Home; of the prodigal son, John Ames Boughton, and how he also seemed ‘not able for this world’ according to his loving sister, Glory. But instead of the Presbyterian, small-town Iowa we witness in Home, Enright’s The Gathering is set in the heart of Catholic Ireland – Dublin. Yet, Catholicism seems to exist within the Hegarty-clan in name only. Although Veronica states that the twelve children her parents produced (not including the numerous miscarriages) were in some part due to the Catholic prohibition of contraception, she believes it to be more likely that they ‘were helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit’. I can’t help but admire the unflinching truths that Enright unleashes on the reader.
There is one grievous moment when, in her youth, Veronica is asked by her father for a cigarette and she, instead, pulls out a box of Durex:
‘[…] as far as his daughters were concerned, he could ignore all sorts of late-night homecomings as long as you didn’t ask him for the taxi money, he could let you walk in pissed, as long as you went by him and straight up the stairs, he would fail to hear you throwing up in the toilet as long as you cleaned up afterwards, but when he asks you for a cigarette and you pull out a box of Durex, like a catastrophic schoolgirl, then he is obliged to erupt, and keep erupting, like Old Faithful, until you have found yourself alternative accommodation.
[…] For a few weeks, Daddy could not look at me, and this hurt me in the Daddy-loves-his-little-girl place; the place where you trust and flirt. But though it hurt, I found that I was able to draw on more ancient hurts than that – and this is how I survived. This is how we all survive. We default to the oldest scar’.
The Gathering, Anne Enright, Pg.95, 96-7
Enright has the power to entertain us with hilarious anecdotes one moment, then suddenly strike us with harsh reality the next. I found this simply stunning. She is also able to truly get to the nitty-gritty of human relationships. Not only do we witness the dysfunctional Hegarty family, but we witness, too, the intimate (or not so intimate) relationships Veronica has had in the past which has led to her disintegrating marriage with the dull and ordinary Tom. From the laid-back, care-free American, Michael Weiss, who didn’t exhibit enough passion for Veronica’s liking, to the one-night stand she has with an Australian who ‘parted with a smile that was as good as a handshake’, Veronica makes the startling realisation that she is only ‘attracted to people who suffer, or men who suffer, my suffering husband, my suffering brother, the suffering figure of Mr Nugent’.
The Gathering is certainly not an easy or straightforward read, yet I devoured it within days. Enright is able to articulate the truth of the human condition with a fierce and unapologetic eye. As Peter Behrens eloquently states in the Washington Post, ‘Everything that happens and does not happen here feels painfully and awkwardly true, even the notes of redemption. Enright seems to know the bone structure of the Irish family during its turbulent silence of the 1960s and ’70s, when elders were still treated with fearful deference and children were less important than they are now’. In my opinion, The Gathering was highly deserving of the Man Booker Prize. It shows ‘human beings in the raw’, as Veronica describes her family, ‘some survive better than others’. As with real life, The Gathering highlights how objective truth, or facts, will always be warped by memory and it is this act of remembering that proves to be the hardest and most painful thing to do.