The Gathering by Anne Enright

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The Gathering by Anne Enright

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: One woman's tale of family dysfunction, this is not for people who demand that something actually happens in their novels or who like to like their narrators, but for the sheer quality of writing it comes cautiously recommended for readers of literary fiction.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099535072

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It's not difficult to see why Anne Enright's The Gathering has been short-listed (and eventually, selected) for that ultimate literary fiction accolade, the Man Booker prize. If our (or the jurors') idea of the the peaks of literary novel is, unavoidably, defined by the Great Moderns, if it's all of Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence; Proust and Musil and Kafka; then The Gathering had to be recognised because it's steeped in that tradition.

Veronica Hegarty, one of the twelve Hegarty siblings is bringing her brother Liam home to bury. He walked to his death in the Brighton sea, his brain muddled by drink, his pockets filled with stones. The gathering of the title refers to the family coming to the funeral in Dublin, but most of the book consists of Veronica's reminiscences and imaginings before that, while she sorts out the transport and the funeral arrangements.

Veronica is telling (or trying to tell) her family's history over the last 80 or so years, and by doing that she's hoping to find answers, find explanations, find solutions - ostensibly to the conundrum of Liam's death - but ultimately, she's searching for some kind closure to her own anguish. She thinks she has an explanation: one in tune with our popular, current, early-21st century understandings of what causes people to become maladjusted and she latches onto this explanation, choosing it as the focal point of her story, clinging to it desperately: one period when, during her mother's depression, she and her brother lived with their grandmother and he was - possibly, probably, likely - undoubtedly - 'interfered with' by a family acquaintance.

Ostensibly, an account of the death of a particularly dysfunctional member of a dysfunctional family, The Gathering is not Liam's tale, it's not a family story (though it's a story about family), not even a 'sexual history' as it's claimed in the promo blurb. It's Veronica's tale, and a disturbing and almost unrelentingly grim one it is. Not just because Veronica has crossed the line between some kind of normality and some kind of a nervous breakdown: her marriage dissolving into a silent scream of perceived hate and alienation, her drinking barely under control, her sleep out of kilter, she roams the house at night trying to work out why are they so fucked up, and why are they so much there, remembering and imagining, imagining and remembering.

It is - of course - a very well written book, with a strong, penetrating voice and profoundly visceral insights, written in something akin to a very vivid stream of conciousness. There is a physical quality to the writing that wonderfully mirrors Veronica's obsessive concentration on the bodily in general, and on the sexual in particular - we never learn why, but the figure of the mother, who bore 12 children (and miscarried 7 more), passive and sweet and vague, and in some way monstrously sexual in this vague passivity - has to have something to do with it.

If one wanted to be charitable, one could say that The Gathering is about what all great novels are: about loss and death, and sex and love; about family, those people you never chose to love but love all the same but to me it lacked universality. Gazing into Veronica's mind was repulsively fascinating, but its content remained particular to her. Crisis situations and life events (including wedding and funerals) are frequently used as a focus for presenting a concentrated snapshot of a social landscape, but The Gathering didn't make this leap: the landscape is purely emotional, and the people and ghosts that populate Veronica's mind are have no life of their own, and the sex and love and even death are also her peculiar versions. She's so full of angst, regret and resentment that she's not capable of telling me anything new about love and death - but she also tells me very little that I could read as a shared experience, and ultimately leaves me cold and quite happy to let her go, in an ending that is ironic and a little bit more uplifting than the rest of the book, to navel-gaze in her own private world.

Three personal stars for (mine, perhaps) inability to connect, and four bookbag stars as it's - more objectively - a very good piece of writing. Not one for people who demand that something actually happens in their novels or who like to like their narrators, but for the sheer quality of the work, cautiously recommended for readers of literary fiction.

On a similar theme to The Gathering, you might also enjoy Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale, Dancing With The Dead by Deborah Gregory or Dancing to an Irish Reel by Claire Fullerton.

Booklists.jpg The Gathering by Anne Enright is in the Booker Prize Winners.

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From the shortlist for the 2007 Booker prize for fiction we have also reviewed:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Animal's People by Indra Sinha


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