Liam Hegarty has died a vagrant in Brighton, England. It falls to his sister Veronica, who was closest to him, to go to Brighton, claim his poor battered body and bring him home to Dublin for burial.
'The Gathering' is just that, a gathering of the Hegarty clan for Liam's funeral. To the eyes of the outside world (and the eyes of many in the family) Liam 'died of the drink', filling his pockets with stones and walking into the sea until it took him away. Veronica is convinced that what really killed Liam was something that she witnessed, or thinks she witnessed, happening to him as a boy in their Granny's house in 1967 - something that he never came to terms with.
Veronica is going through a crisis of her own at this time. She feels distant, disassociated from the lives of her husband and daughters, an observer only. Her children are no longer babies and hers alone. They are growing into their own persons and Veronica has not yet found a niche for herself in the world to fill the void that this is leaving. A void that she attempts to fill with alcohol, with wandering the comfortable house she has at night, with writing and with thinking dark thoughts.
Veronica has stopped sleeping with her husband. She says she loves him and does not want to divorce but the lady doth protest too much, methinks. Veronica claims she simply does not want to sleep with him until she has figured herself out. So she spends nights wandering about the ground floor of her five-bedroomed detached house in Dublin's middle class suburbia. Sometimes she writes. She writes particularly of her grandmother Ada Merriman, her grandfather Charlie Spillane and of the man she knows her grandmother had a passion for - Lamb Nugent. The scenes she writes of these characters are very vibrant, intense, the physicality between the characters palpable.
Veronica holds Lamb Nugent responsible for her brother Liam's death. For one winter's evening in 1968 Lamb Nugent molested Liam and never paid a price for it. He had power over the family because he owned the house in which Ada lived, he abused this power and robbed Liam of his dignity. Veronica witnessed this but it is only after Liam dies that she realizes how much it has marked both of them.
The Hegartys are a large clan and Mammy must be protected at all costs, this custom appears to have started with their father and then taken up as a mantra by the rest of the family. 'Don't tell Mammy'. This enrages Veronica who feels like screaming at her mother. Why didn’t she say 'No' to sex with her husband? Why not scream 'Stop' or 'we cannot afford more babies, I cannot manage more babies.' There were too many babies and not enough parent to go around. A common Irish condition of the time. The father is a minor character, a voice behind a paper, a rustle of a paper. All the real living in this family is done through the sibling relationships.
The Gathering is both a sweeping family epic which leaves no stone unturned in its search for the truth in family myths and secrets and an astute commentary on an Irish society (now thankfully swept away) which was governed by the Catholic Church, in the pockets of a gentrified rural middle class and in a political brethren buried in a romantic notion of Ireland’s past.
Enright lays out her stall very carefully, showing us the sexual history of the Hegarty clan without flinching from unpleasant truths. We are shown in the harshest of lights how the keeping of family secrets can fester within, warping the very bodies of those they purport to protect with their silence. Veronica narrates her own and Liam’s tale and also gives the back story of the thwarted passions of their forebears. These characters are as skillfully and truthfully drawn as any of James Joyces’s characters. Anne Enright writes bluntly and beautifully about sex and the eternal trouble between men and women.
It is a daring book, challenging the reader – it demands careful attention as every sentence is carefully nuanced. It challenges us as human beings with its unflinching look at the rules by which we think we must lead out lives and then shows us how our bodies cannot lie to accomodate us. The Gathering is never sentimental and above all attempts to tell the truth – for both the troubled Veronica Hegarty and her beloved departed brother Liam.