The most important thing any work of great literature can do, indeed any great work of Art, is to speak to you in an honest way. It should tell the truth. Anne Enright achieves this (as in most of her work) in The Gathering without faltering. However, any reader coming to this novel expecting a straight story will be maddened by the protagonist, Veronica Hegarty, who goes around the houses telling her tale, dipping into her family's distant past, her childhood and scenes from her recent past.
On the surface it is a story of a family gathering to bury their estranged sibling Liam, who has taken his own life apparently to escape an existence of a vagrant alcoholic. They mourn and are astutely observed through the eyes of Veronica, herself a woman in much distress. Her children are growing, she loves - or claims she loves - her husband but has grown away from him. There is a disconnect between them. The disassociation that accompanies her thoughout the novel results in her abstaining from sex with her husband. Veronica says sex now makes her feel 'like a quartered chicken.' Brutal and cold.
The Gathering is not always an easy read, it is unflinching in its look at human sexuality and the differences between the sexes in their attitude to same. It certainly raises many questions on topics the reader may not often visit - for fear of what might be discovered perhaps? A sombre book; the subject matter difficult but the prose itself is not difficult to read. Anne Enright is too fine a craftswoman for that, each word is carefully chosen and the portrait of each character - of Veronica, of Liam and Ada and Lamb Nugent - is carefully drawn; like placing stone upon stone to create a structure through which truth can whistle like the wind though a stone wall – wearing it away gradually but never bringing the edifice down.
Veronica felt unloved as a child; her mother was constantly pregnant or/and nursing another child and her father, who was there physically certainly, was mentally and emotionally remote. He paid the bills, had sex with their mother and disappeared from their lives apart from that. The Hegarty's mother ‘suffered from her nerves’ - no doubt engendered by her husband's mental distance and the demands of nine children. A common occurence in urban areas of Ireland in the sixties and seventies. Her children would be split up and distributed between family and friends so Daddy could work while Mammy went ‘for a rest’ - like many women of the time she survived thereafter on a dolly mixture of pills.
During one of these periods when Mammy was away Veronica and Liam stayed with their grandmother Ada. Veronica, an astute child, noticed that the relationship Ada has with both her husband Charlie and with a family friend Lamb Nugent it is not like the relationship her mother has with her father. Veronica sees her parents as communicating through their children, there seems to be no direct intercourse ( barring sexual) between them. We are given detailed descriptions of the imagined relationships between Ada , Charlie and Lamb Nugent dating back to their meeting each other in 1925. These relationships are sexually highly charged and Enright is masterful in setting these scenes - the tension is almost palpable.
However Lamb Nugent and his sex drive are to be the undoing of them all as Veronica uncovers a hazy memory of abuse by Nugent on her brother Liam. She constantly states she doesn't know if it happened, but for it to have had such a deep and long-lasting effect on her I wonder was Liam the only victim of Lamb Nugent's selfish appetites? A dysfunctional family is nothing new in Irish literature, James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, Eugene O’Neill, J.M. Synge, McGahern and O’Casey are but some of the greats that have explored the Irish relationship with love, sex, alcohol and morality. The unflinching way that Enright applies her intellect to the dark underbelly of Irish family life puts 'The Gathering' on a par with the great works of all those writers.
Veronica is a sensitive and intuitive narrator - if a little confused at times- she is sensuous like her grandmother Ada, and not battened down by duty or by too many children as was her mother. Veronica is clearly intelligent but her thinking shies away from what appears to this reader to be the obvious answer. To leave her husband. At least temporarily - she needs Virginia Woolf's medicine - a quiet room of her own to think. But the Hegartys don't leave. They die instead, incapable of telling the truth to themselves or the world.The subject matter of the novel - child abuse, alcoholism, suicide and sex - in other words all of Life between Birth and Death may not appeal to all. But it certainly enriched this reader's life. In fact it gave me answers, or the start of answers to some of the imponderable questions I may have , up to this, been afraid of or uncertain of asking.
I did feel that the novel funked it when it came to resolving the difficulties in the relationship between Veronica and her husband Tom. But I'm not certain if it is the author or the narrator that backed off at the last minute. Veronica Hegarty may not yet be ready to be reborn. Perhaps she needs to work through her grief at Liam's death before she can fully confront her own demons. Perhaps a sequel? Roddy Doyle said that Paula Spencer, the central character in 'The Woman Who Walked into Doors' stayed with him always and ten years later he penned 'Paula Spencer' to see what had become of her. I don't think we have seen the last of Veronica Hegeraty; Anne Enright has started her on a journey of self- discovery that cannot now be halted. In The Gathering she was not yet ready to face that final leap – for what if there were no soft landing? One imagines that Veronica will not procrastinate much longer – leave the man she loves and go find some magnificent passion to remind herself she is alive. Either that or hit the bottle to block the pain of that self same condition - the Irish answer to every question.
At the end of the novel I was hopeful for Veronica. If she cannot find passion in the form of another person I feel certain she will find passion for something else, preferably something non-chemical which might accompany her to the end of her days. I look forward to meeting her again.