I’ve been trying to figure out why I struggled with Anne Enright’s The Gathering; the best I can come up with is that I started off badly with the book, and that bad start was too much to overcome. I did begin to like the book more as I went on, and now that I’ve finished it I have come to admire it, but the experience of reading it wasn’t pleasurable.
The first chapter irritated me with its elusiveness, its refusal to make complete sense, its jumping around from character to character and time period to time period. And the first chapter is not even two pages.
I don’t particularly like saying that in another mood, at another time, I might have liked the book — it feels like a cop-out to me: if I didn’t like the book I should just say I didn’t like it — but in this case it’s probably true. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with this particular narrator and her troubled and troubling voice.
The story is told by Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve children in an Irish family; her older brother Liam has just been found dead and throughout the novel she’s preparing for his funeral — the gathering of the title. Much of the novel, though, is taken up with what appear to be memories and flashbacks to Veronica’s youth and adolescence — her memories of her distant and mentally ailing mother, of sibling fights and violence, and especially of her grandmother Ada, her grandfather Charlie, and their mysterious but ever-present friend Lamb Nugent.
I say these “appear” to be memories and flashbacks because we learn early on that Veronica doesn’t really know much about her family and especially her grandparents, so instead she imagines a history for them, conjuring up, for example, the way her grandparents may have met and how Lamb may have ingratiated himself into their lives. There’s very little, when it comes down to it, that we as readers can say for sure about what the novel presents to us; what we know is what Veronica tells us of her attempts to make sense of her past, but these attempts are so tenuous, we are never on solid footing.
Veronica’s voice is a dark, troubling one; she’s grappling with some shocking memories of witnessing a sexual molestation, although even here she’s uncertain about how and whether it actually happened. She’s going through some marriage troubles herself, spending her days sleeping and her nights writing and driving around the city, feeling in complete isolation from her husband. She’s trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with her and with her recently-dead brother, to think through who is at fault, and even whether such a question is answerable at all. Her rage at the world comes through in almost every page, and I came in time to admire her attempts, floundering though they may be, to understand what has happened to her.
I kind of wish I hadn’t reacted badly to the novel at the beginning, as I came to like the book more as I thought about it further. It’s so direct and unsparing, and beautifully written too. But sometimes I’m not in the mood for beautiful writing, strange as that may sound. Or perhaps I should say that it struck me as self-consciously beautiful writing, and that’s what irritated me, the way the language drew attention to itself. That kind of writing I’m not always in the mood for.
At any rate, our book group discussion is tomorrow, and I’m curious to see how the conversation will go. Certainly don’t let my doubts scare you away from the book if you are at all interested in reading it — you may come to love it. Hobgoblin liked it quite a bit, in fact.
I’ll close with a quotation from an interview Enright gave; I thought it was a very astute way of thinking about James Joyce and his influence on contemporary writers:
Q. Almost every review of an Irish writer’s work makes comparisons to James Joyce. Is it hard to get away from him?
A. I don’t want to get away from him. It’s male writers who have a problem with Joyce; they’re all “in the long shadow of Joyce, and who can step into his shoes?” I don’t want any shoes, thank you very much. Joyce made everything possible; he opened all the doors and windows. Also, I have a very strong theory that he was actually a woman. He wrote endlessly introspective and domestic things, which is the accusation made about women writers – there’s no action and nothing happens. Then you look at “Ulysses” and say, well, he was a girl, that was his secret.