The past is another country; it's all rage,
violation and sadness for this family
Slight in storyline, perhaps, but prodigious in the telling, The Gathering brings together fragments of the past, real and imagined, all filtered through the consciousness of Anne Enright's narrator, Veronica Hegarty.
Veronica is a middle-aged, newly middle-class Irish mother of two, with a Tudor-redbrick-Queen-Anne house, a nice Saab and an incredibly long-suffering husband. She is endowed with vast numbers of siblings, one of whom, when the novel opens, has just walked into the sea and drowned himself in Brighton.
Why? The narrator's purpose is to make sense of this event, and of circumstances peculiar to the time, or the country, or down to indigenous overbreeding - and, in the process, to get a handle on her own defects and instabilities.
The Gathering, then, is a family story: a gathering of the Hegarty clan for Liam's wake and funeral in Dublin, back where he started. What started long before Liam was the course mapped out for him, the seeds of which were sown by his and Veronica's grandmother, Ada. Or not by Ada herself but her association with two men: the children's grandfather Charlie Spillane, and his friend Lamb Nugent.
All these things are circulating vividly in Veronica's head. There is Ada herself, her mad son and her daughter all but extinguished by unrestrained childbearing, the 12 Hegartys (nine surviving), Lamb Nugent and, in the middle of all, a traumatic occurrence in the past. There is no mystery about it; the nasty something in the Irish woodshed - or grandmother's good front room, or dirty old garage - is now almost bound to be an episode of abuse, either witnessed or undergone.
There is plenty of carnal activity in The Gathering but little in the way of seductive overlay, or even a palatable slant. It is all rage, violation, sadness and squalor as the narrator gets to grips with bitter truths, or possible truths. Veronica's narrative is hectic and comic all at once. The siblings are ironically observed, with sudden affection or exasperation: the drunk, the ex-priest, the charmer, the enigma; "the shifting stories and the waking dreams," as she expresses it.
Enright is justly celebrated for her distinctive eloquence, her elan and originality - but this eloquence can sometimes take on an edge of exorbitance, an excessive eccentricity. She can get carried away. The Gathering has moments of swagger or splurge. But its impact is extraordinary, full of its author's inimitable aplomb.
This review first appeared in The Independent.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007