The Gathering

This book, which won Anne Enright the Booker Prize in 2007, is a dirge. It is a cry of loneliness and pain from a woman, Veronica, whose brother, Liam, has committed suicide. That death has caused Veronica’s mind to shudder away from her present, in which she admittedly has all she could want — a husband, a house, two beautiful daughters — and toward her past, in which she and her siblings, eight now living and ten dead, swirled chaotically around religion, drink, love, hate, money, abuse, coincidence, and time.

As Veronica manages the arrangements for Liam’s wake and funeral, she begins to dig into their shared past, going all the way back to her grandmother Ada’s marriage to Charlie Spillane, and to their old, mysterious friend Lambert Nugent. But Veronica is anything but a reliable narrator. Every memory is romanticized (or, quite the reverse, it is made perverse and urgent.). Each memory is tainted, tinted, altered to suit. “That Christmas morning was as clean and crisp as it always is — my memory will not allow it to rain,” she says. Or again, after the story of seeing her grandfather laid out on his deathbed, “And now of course I must add Kitty in from the start, my little sister, trailing up the stairs behind us, because she must have been there too.” In the end, she says, “There was something about imagining things, or even remembering them, that [Ada] found slightly distasteful — like gossip, only worse. These days, of course, I do little else.”

The most important effect of Veronica’s unreliability is that she is, and is not, sure that her brother Liam was sexually abused by Lambert Nugent the summer Liam was ten years old and she was living with him at Ada’s house. One moment she knows what she saw, and describes it vividly, the shadows, the emotions, the unfamiliarity of the sight. The next moment, she thinks:

And even though I know it is true that this happened, I do not know if I have the true picture in my mind’s eye… The image has too much yellow light in it, there are too many long shadows thrown… I think it may be a false memory, because there is a terrible tangle of things that I have to fight through to get to it, in my head.  And also because it is unbearable.

Which is better and which is worse? That Liam was abused and she didn’t acknowledge it, and that it eventually led to his alcoholism and suicide? Or that it never happened, and his drinking and death were caused by nothing more than his own lack of hope? Which guilt is easier: your own, or that which belongs to the dead?

It does seem clear that something sexually strange has happened, if not to Liam, then to Veronica. Her thinking about sex is furious, twisted, and deeply disturbing. She either cannot or will not see a line between normal, healthy desire and perversity.

I say, “You’d fuck anything.”

“What?” he says.

I say, “I don’t know where it starts and where it ends, that’s all. You’d fuck the nineteen-year-old waitress, or the fifteen-year-old who looks nineteen.”

“Sorry?”

“I don’t know where the edges are, that’s all. I don’t know where you draw the line. Puberty, is that a line? It happens to girls at nine, now.”

“What are you talking about?” he says.

“Or not to your actual fucking. Of course. But just, you know, to your desire. To what you want. Is there a limit to what you want to fuck, out there?”

I have gone mad.

Some of this shows up, too, in the way Veronica returns to the phrase noli me tangere — do not touch me — that Christ says to Mary Magdalene in the Bible. Ada gave Nugent the nickname “Nolly May,” and there is so much in this story that should be taboo, cannot be touched — children, the past, the dead, redemptive grace — but that Veronica relentlessly explores. She does not seem to believe that sacred should mean untouchable, even though she herself shudders away from touch.

There’s no doubt that this is a dark book. Veronica says, “I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” But it’s also a complex and a rich one, worth reading for its language and flavor and small revelations.

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18 Responses to The Gathering

  1. Diane says:

    This is one that I’ve been meaning to read for a long while. The reviews have been definitely mixed. Yous was great.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I’ve seen any negative reviews, but I can definitely see that people could be turned off by the subject matter. The prose is good enough to make it worth while, though.

  2. Chelsea says:

    Wow. Even the review is heavy (not that it’s not fantastic!) but even with the weight and anguish the book seems to carry with it, I’m being drawn to it. My library doesn’t have a copy, but I’m trying desperately to track one down! Thanks for a wonderful review!

    • Jenny says:

      Since it’s a Booker winner, I expect you won’t have too much trouble finding it. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Emily says:

    Great post, Jenny. Your (and Enright’s) thoughts on memory, true and false, remind me strongly of an Alice Munro story I read just last night – not quite as dark, but with similar themes of the way in which we create and alter certain memories so that they can perform certain work in our minds. And suppress others because they don’t fit or are too difficult to deal with. This sounds like an intense but thought-provoking read.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I love Alice Munro. And this was much more abrasive than Munro usually is, but I agree that it had some of the same mental echoes that she can have.

  4. Kathleen says:

    I read and enjoyed this one about a year or so ago. I didn’t stop to think that Veronica was an unreliable narrator and yet I should have. I really enjoyed your take on the book. Makes me want to read it again and see other things I might have missed the first time around.

  5. I was excited to read this one but once I did get to it, I was unable to connect. I am glad you enjoyed it more than I did!

    • Jenny says:

      I can see that Veronica’s not likeable, but that’s not what I look for in a narrator, so I connected pretty well in the end.

  6. Deb says:

    I recently read Enright’s very interesting book, THE PLEASURE OF ELIZA LYNCH, about an Irishwoman who became the mistress of the dictator of Paraguay; I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for another Enright to read. Although I haven’t read THE GATHERING yet, I already had it on my tbr list before I read your review. Now I think I have to move it to the top of the list.

    Your comment about the unreliability of memory made me think of Anais Nin’s observation that “memory is a great betrayer.” At least, I seem to remember that’s what Nin said–ha-ha.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! Yes, based on this, I would definitely read more by Enright. The more I think about it, the more complex it seems.

  7. Amy says:

    I have this book on my night stand and hope to read it soon. It was recommended to me by friends for the language and the complex and subtle story line.
    Your review is the first I’ve read and I like having a better idea of what The Gathering is about. And now I’m looking forward to reading it!

    • Jenny says:

      I’ll enjoy hearing your thoughts. Your friends were certainly right about the language and the story. There’s a lot to this one, intense though it is.

  8. I couldn’t finish this book – I just didn’t get on with it at all. Truth be told, I found it trying to read from the first page, and about eighty pages in, I figured it’s not worth my time or effort – something I felt guilty about, as it had won the Booker.

    Glad you got through it, and more importantly, that you found it to be a rich, complex book. Slightly envious :)

  9. Great review! I read this recently and loved it. I loved the sense of shifting and unreliable memory.
    http://theknockingshop.blogspot.com/2011/03/gathering.html

  10. sakura says:

    I never considered reading this book until about a month ago and since then I’ve seen it popping up everywhere. I’m taking that as a sign I should read it soon! I’ve heard her newest book is easier to read, but I think I’d like to start with this one precisely because it’s a difficult subject.

    • Jenny says:

      I would certainly read something else of hers, though I haven’t heard much about her other work and would be choosing more or less at random.

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