'The Gathering' is a family epic, condensed and clarified through Anne Enright's unblinking eye. It is also a sexual history: tracing the line of hurt and redemption through three generations - starting with the grandmother, Ada Merriman - showing how memories warp and family secrets fester. Originally published: London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.
As Veronica Hegarty brings her brother's body back to Ireland and her family gathers for the wake, she recounts to us her family's history and the past secrets about her brother Liam that she has kept to herself since childhood, secrets that may have tormented Liam to his eventual suicide. Veronica is an unreliable narrator--she as much as tells us so. Early on, she tells the story of her grandmother Ada's first meeting with Lambert Nugent, a meeting that is to echo throughout the generations of the Hegartys, mesmerizing the reader with the story and its possible outcomes, and then pulling out the rug with her admission that she imagined it all. The reader is left with decisions as to what is real and what is not, and whether, in the end, the reality or unreality of the stories matter.
Veronica and Liam's family is huge (12 children), with the requisite alcoholics and priests, and they tend to blend together. I was particularly intrigued by the mysterious Alice, the only surviving sibling never to arrive onstage. But the story is primarily concerned with the tight duo of Veronica and Liam, with the next stairstep, Kitty, tagging close behind, and what may or may not have happened to Liam, what Veronica may or may not have seen, when the three children stayed with Ada one year while Veronica was eight and Liam was nine.
Veronica is an angry woman, and The Gathering is one long, searing howl of rage and pain. Enright's brilliant, incisive writing for the most part overcomes the familiar territory over which this very Irish novel treads, although some of her creative touches, such as her references to bodies, living and dead, as meat, can wear thin with repetition. The book is well done, but draining. And it leaves the reader with more questions than it answers. This is a book that will stay with readers for a long time, and can lead, as in my case, with examinations of our own personal family histories.
There are abrupt transitions, one-sentence paragraphs, unexpected diversions, invented memories and fragmentary scenes, and they are part of the novel's purpose: Enright wants to demonstrate what happens when memories are defective. The problem is that there is another reason why writers turn to fragments and hypothetical scenes: because they are struggling to fill the page, to build the novel, to write a masterpiece of introspection. As I read, I sometimes felt the sting of real pain, real memories: but more often, I felt the persistent trouble the author had in writing great prose, in putting together a great book. Moments when other authors would drill down into difficult memories are alleviated by the sparkly kaleidoscope of Enright's writing. As proof: we never understand why the mother should be so despised; we never hear the difficult conversations with the family about Liam's past; we never see more than fragments of the narrator's noctournal life. When I read those pages describing how the narrator would stay up all night while her husband slept, I thought: Yes, that's Enright, staying up all night fretting about her Great Novel.
Enright is like Kavanagh in the rawness, the nakedness of her writing. But Kavanagh's ambition was to see himself, to understand things clearly and honestly. Here there is much naked ambition, too little naked analysis.
If the prize hasn't cocooned her in a warm swathe of self-regard, then the might well go on to something genuinely strong. But this is a weak novel, where family feelings are marred by an unpleasant desire for fame.
The writing is quite good, but I seriously couldn't wrap my head around this book; it really failed to grab me as did the other Booker nominees I've read so far.
I would recommend it for anyone who enjoys stories about grief and coping with loss; it is an incredibly bleak kind of novel,though, so if you're looking for a feel-good kind of read, stay away.
I don't know...maybe it's just me but I just couldn't really embrace this novel. Maybe others will enjoy it much more than I did.
The Gathering is an intimate and painful look at grief. Veronica Hegarty's life has been turned upside-down by her brother Liam's suicide. Throughout this novel Veronica operates in a fog, disconnected from her siblings, her husband, and her children. She is barely able to function. As she reflects on her brother's life, she tries to piece together elements of their shared past, but her childhood memories are fraught with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Liam's death also makes her keenly aware of her own less-than-satisfying adult life: "I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go 'home' where I could 'have sex' with my 'husband' just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn't seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died." (p. 181) When did it all go wrong?
As winner of the 2007 Booker Prize, The Gathering has received more than its share of reviews. It seems to be a "love it or hate it" book, mostly because it is so bleak. This is, indeed, a very sad book. Each person seems to be lost in their own island of grief, unable to support one another. Veronica withdraws completely; her siblings are each caught up in their own childhood baggage and destructive behavior patterns. As the book draws to a close, the truth has proven to be elusive, and the future is uncertain. Those looking for neat and tidy endings will be disappointed, but I found The Gathering's stark realism to be both intense and memorable.
In "The Gathering" Anne Enright captures in the first person the oblique, lurching brush with madness induced in the surviving sister - a stunning achievement. The sentences in this novel - the recorded thoughts of an angry, haunted woman - rush and burrow and spike their way into Veronica's and our conscious view. Veronica struggles her way through a crisis, and decides after a half-hearted attempt at running away, that maybe she'll embrace her life.
The language in "The Gathering" slowly and subtly gains clarity, perfectly reflecting the hero/narrator's state of mind. The dramatic internal dialogue is the V-8 engine roaring through this arcing skyrocket of a novel. Don't look for an intricate plot; the intricacies here involve the internal struggle to come to grips with a highly toxic past - some of us succeed and some don't. Veronica's brother Liam committed suicide under the burden.
Ms. Enright has written a remarkable book in a way that defies expectation or definition or classification. It's a highly personal, scary, death-defying journey that won the Man Booker Prize, and for this reviewer, there is no wonder in that at all.
Veronica is a cold, cynical person - angry with her mother’s passivity, confused about her brother’s choices, and ambivalent about her siblings.
She is a woman struggling in a rocky marriage which is made more unstable by Veronica’s negative view of men. But, she is not all hardness and anger. Veronica’s love for her children leaps from the pages and as the novel unfolds, the reader is drawn to Veronica, wanting to understand her and make sense of her life.
Enright leaves the reader with ambiguity in the end. The facts are hazy and the outcome of all the characters’ futures are unsure.
The power of this novel comes from Enright’s fresh language and her ability to expose her characters’ faults. Time and again I found myself stunned by the searing choice of words and phrasing; the graphic descriptions; and Enright’s ability to take the reader to an uncomfortable place to drive home her point.
The Gathering is a tough book which deals with a difficult subject matter. Enright seems to purposefully set out to shock the reader - dragging her through the muck of dysfunction and pain, stirring up the sediment in the lives of the characters to reveal their souls. Written with a great deal of intelligence, unerringly true to its characters, and staggering in its scope - The Gathering is a novel which is not easily forgotten.
Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.
This saga of an Irish family begins with Veronica's grandmother, Ada, who meets Lamb Nugent in the foyer of a hotel in 1925. Ada is there about a job; Lamb works behind the desk. Nugent falls in love with Ada from the moment she twitches her gloves off with precise movements:
"It has already happened. It happened when she walked in the door; when she looked about her, but only as far as the chair. It happened in the perfection with which she managed to be present but not seen. And all the rest was just agitation: first of all that she should notice him back (and she did - she noticed his stillness), and second that she should love him as he loved her; suddenly, completely, and beyond what had been allocated to them as their station."
It comes as a shock after Veronica tells this story, all in precise, careful, lovely language, each moment so vividly recalled in her imagination that the reader can't help but picture the hotel lobby, the 19-year-old girl and her admirer, to learn that Nugent does not become Ada's husband. Instead, Ada marries Charlie, Nugent's best friend, a man constantly nipping out to "see a man about a dog" and to gamble - a man bad with money, but who adores Ada and whom she adores as well. And Lamb? He is there, with his wife and his four children, and he is the landlord for the Hegarty family. And he never stops loving Ada. And he gets his revenge.
But what does that have to do with Liam, and Liam's suicide, and Veronica's anger? For her anger goes beyond the place it would have as one of the stages of grieving; it extends to her living brothers and sisters, her mother, her husband, even, seemingly, to Ireland itself. This book glows red with anger:
"I know that these men [men with easy hearts] exist, I have even met them, it is just that I could never love one, even if I tried. I love the ones who suffer, and the love me. They love to see me sitting on their nice Italian furniture, and they love to see me cry.
"And I know how silly it is. You don't kill someone by having sex with them. You kill them with a knife, or a rope, or a hammer, or a gun. You strangle them with their tights. You do not kill them with a penis. So it is all - the I hate you, I love you, I hate - a dream of killing and dying, I understand that much; that when you roll away from each other go to sleep, then the dream is over for another day."
Veronica who has lost her way in this world, but did not realize it until her brother died. That brother, and his story, is the driving force in this book, but is not truly the source of Veronica's deep anger, anger so deep it is depression as well as fury. This is a hard book to read; not enjoyable, but open, almost like a corpse splayed in autopsy, welling with emotion. It is the story of a family that has never been happy, even as it has been successful, even as it has grown and prospered, even as the siblings cling to and love one another. Nevertheless, it is beautifully rendered. It is worthy of its prize.
It's told by a knowingly unreliable narrator - one who is aware that memory plays tricks, tells us so, and is still wondering about the truth of much of what she tells us. Perhaps for this reason, the novel can't be said to be rich in plot, but it is very rich in atmosphere and a sense of place. The differences between the households of Veronica and her generation and those of her parents and grandparents are made effortlessly clear.
Some might find this a bleak read - indeed it's clear this is true from some of the other reviews here. I found it anything but. There are some ruined and sad lives portrayed, but there isn't tragedy in the usual sense. And there's a great deal of humour, bittersweet though some of it is. There's also real understanding of people, emotions and motives and the degree to which these are exposed or hidden for good and bad reasons.
This is not a book to read in small portions, despite the fragmentary telling which shifts back and forth through time. You need to immerse yourself in it in a few large chunks to get the sense of the characters and places being painted by the words. You won't necessarily like all of them, but you'll recognise them and care about them.
Now - no, I don't write the right review to the wrong book - we are in Ireland, 50 years later and the Glass family is called Hegarty now. They are also "unique", but I have never understood what made them so. Ok, they are a little crazy and have - each of them - some problems, but there is no family without some of those. One of the main problems is - in my view - the size of this family. They are nine or twelve and only a few of them do matter in the course of the story. The rest is dead or seriously neglected by the author (who - if I read thoroughly - confused some of them after page 100). The GATHERING itself happens (by the way) only in the last third of the novel and has no meaning at all. The dialogues are not understandable and give no clue what kind of relation the characters have. I think they are all drunk when they speak and I hope (for them) I am right.
Now I will come to the spoiling issue and to my most important objection. If I understand it correctly something bad happened in the sixties, something which has to do with an adult's penis in a child's hand (which is bad enough and I don't want to trivialize that). This event seems to trigger a lot of other events leading to homosexuality, depression, suicide and (as Adams would say) the rest. And that is the deep secret hidden by the author who knew it all along. Uhhhhh. Compris? That's it. That's it? Sorry, yes.
Liam Hegarty has committed suicide by walking into the sea at Brighton with stones in his pocket, and his sister Veronica, closest to him in age, closest to him emotionally, takes upon herself the task of bringing the body home. But confronting the death of her alcoholic brother creates a crisis in her too, and brings her to the point of breakdown.
There is much in her own life she must take apart and examine, beginning with the anger has long harboured towards her parents for their feckless fecundity. The strain of continuous childbirth (they had a total of twelve children from nineteen pregnancies, a large number even by the standard of Irish Catholic families) leaves Veronica’s mother unable to properly function mentally to the extent that she cannot even remember her daughter’s name. Veronica is hurt and angry at this apparent amnesia, angry too at the way the children were themselves forced into a parenting role and had to bring each other up.
She and Liam were farmed out to their grandmother, Ada, when their mother was no longer able to cope with them, and she realises that it was here that something happened which fundamentally changed Liam’s nature and planted the seeds of despair that lead to his slide into alcoholism and subsequent suicide. Was he sexually abused? She struggles to uncover memories which she has suppressed for decades, not always sure if the images which fill her mind are accurate representations of what actually happened – or perhaps didn’t happen.
Most novels play out the past in flashbacks which make memory appear to be an instantly accessible video with every detail rendered distinctly. This is of course not at all how our minds work, and Enright shows how an apparently solid memory of an event has to be modified in the light of objective evidence. “I don’t know if I have the correct picture in my mind,” she says, and talks of “shifting stories and waking dreams” which she must sift through to find the truth.
“One of my strongest memories of Liam is him peeing through a wire fence” she says at one point, only to discover later in the novel that the fence was made of railings. If she can be wrong about small details, can she be so certain about the bigger picture?
The novel also deals with the way that pain and dysfunction can be passed on from generation to generation. Veronica cannot make sense of what happened in her grandmother’s house without making sense of the strange love triangle in which her grandmother found herself? Yet she has no access to that except through imaginative reconstruction.
The Gathering is perhaps the bravest and the most innovative of the novels which made it to the Booker shortlist, but with its exploration of death and loss and family pain it is often an unsettling read.
I found this to be an odd book. The narrator, Veronica Hegarty is so unreliable. What happened in her grandparents past & what didn't. Was she the product of abuse, or not? I found many passages slightly hallucinogenic and was unclear what was going on. That said, the story of this dyfunctional and large Irish family was one I will not forget.
There were times when I tried to draw parallelisms between this book and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, which I enjoyed reading tremendously. But beyond the fact that both are Irish and both talk about the miserable Catholic Irish childhood with a drinking problem somewhere in the household, I am not sure that this book turns out as appealing to me as the other. I found myself tired of the excessive phallic references, which I understood to be necessary. But there's a fine line between stylistic necessity and vulgarity, and I think Enright crossed it with this attempt. This is not to say, of course, that I don't think the author has a great writing style.
I'm a little undecided about how much I liked this book. On the plus side, I enjoyed the 'Irishness' of it - Enright caught the conversation style perfectly, and coming from N. Ireland many of the character types and settings resonated (especially the older characters). Ironically, whilst reading a book about the initial days after a family death I experienced a death within my own family, so the scenario of going to visit the body in the house and eating crustless sandwiches seemed all too real.
(Incidentally, I'm curious - is this just an Irish thing bringing bodies back to the family house and going in to see them? My English husband can't get his head around this at all.)
I thought Enright captured well the often conflicted emotions around a family death, especially when the person who died was loved but not always liked. The narrator grapples with this conflict in her own head, and the stream of consciousness style works well to describe the jumble of thoughts and feelings and erratic actions that her grief triggers.
On the negative, I found the first half of the book was a little dull and I kept putting it aside with no great will to pick it up again. The second half worked better as all the pieces started to fit together, but essentially this is a book about grief and emotions much more than plot.
In all, I quite enjoyed this book, but probably respected it more than loved it. It's razor sharp with its emotional insight, but the incoherency of its grief-addled thoughts did not always make enjoyable reading.
3.5 stars - a fair Man Booker winner? In terms of craft rather then enjoyment - yes, I'd say so.
"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 to 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," Veronica, the narrator, writes on the first page of the novel. Each chapter carries us deeper into Veronica's psyche as she tries to navigate the labyrinth of grief, memory, love, sex and a budding alcohol problem. I was often uncertain where this twisted web of memories was taking me and, subsequently, what the book wanted to tell me. Yet, in spite of my frustration with Veronica's selfishness and the seeming randomness of the plot, I was propelled irresistably forward by my longing to know what happened to the two main characters.
Some people might hate this book and I can't say that I would blame them. It would be easy to find Veronica insufferable, the atmosphere too dense, the plot too labyrinthine or the ending too ambiguous to be satisfying. For me, each of these possible "too much"-es made the book worth savoring. Everything in the book can be interpreted in more than one way, which is my very favorite kind of book. You cannot read it without thinking and interpreting.
Bottom line: read at your own risk. I imagine a lot of people will love this book and a lot of people will hate it, but few will fall in between.
Actually, I would have been content to heartily dislike the woman for the rest of my life, if she weren't such a genius on the page. I say this, so you can believe it, with the full weight of a grudge long held -- I wish I could consign this woman's work to the bin, at least verbally, with some erudite critical lashing, but the fact is, the fact remains, that she is a bloody genius. This book, The Gathering, for which she won the Booker prize, is the sort of novel that clings to you. Just as its characters do within the story, the book itself gets under your skin. You find yourself looking out of windows, or neglecting the whistling kettle, not so much thinking, not coherently, about reading one more chapter, but feeling an indistinct urge to return to the narrative -- to see the finish of these lives, as much as you will ever see it. There is a certain magic to her first-person style that feels so intimate, it's almost as if you, the reader, are becoming tangled in the narrator's emotions. And these are not happy emotions. This is no romance novel where one delights in the happy bubble bursting in your chest as the love ripples out of the page. One does not want these feelings and yet there is no escaping them. "Drawn in" is a phrase we use when we speak of good books, of favorite plots and fantasy epics, but it is not quite right here. It's more like being hooked, and struggling to be free.
The prose is occasionally complex, occasionally even slightly incoherent, which is where Enright seems to excel even in comparison with the rest of her writing. Inside the narrator's head, things are a jumble, and so we are jumbled along with them, and even clarity is not quite clear, in the end. I cannot say that this book is charming, or delightful, or any of those bright, easy words that describe so many of the books I like to read. I don't really know that I liked to read this book at all. But I was compelled to, and it was brilliant, and as much as I would rather tell you that this whole thing was a stinking pile, I can't -- if you are a reader of literary fiction, or a connoisseur of prose, or even just an emotional type, then it is for you that I admit Anne Enright's brilliance. Surly thing that she is.
The Gathering slots neatly into the Booker-bait category of “depressed person looks back on a life of regrets,” a template particularly popular among novelists from the British Isles (see also: The Sea, The Sense of an Ending.) I liked it a bit better than The Sense of an Ending, and a lot more than The Sea, but it was still a fairly dull affair. Enright is a decent enough writer when it comes to prose style, and there are some good scenes and visual images throughout the book. But in the end I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about this miserable woman from a family of jerks. I’m afraid I don’t have much more to say about this one.