Good writers don’t let you off easy. They provide no pat answers – there’s no riding off together into the sunset as the orchestral music swells in the background. Good writers unsettle you. They leave you with questions. They disturb your assumptions, shake you out of your comfort zone. They can be savage in their wit, ruthless in their descriptions of those they love, and unexpectedly kind towards those they don’t.
Dublin-born author Anne Enright is one of those writers. The Gathering, her fourth novel and winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, is not to be read for consolation. The theme is familiar – the death of a family member brings together his surviving parent and siblings – but Enright turns it on its head. The survivors here find no comfort in death; “closure” is a word without resonance. The wounds and resentments of childhood remain; they are not washed away in a flood of repentance and forgiveness. The notion of healing has no place within this particular family – they flaunt the slights and injuries of childhood as if they happened yesterday: “This is how we all survive. We default to the oldest scar.”
The narrator, 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty, begins by telling us she wants to write down what happened – or might have happened – when she was a child and she and her brother, Liam, were staying at the house of their grandmother, Ada Merriman Spillane. Something happened, she knows that, and it’s something that matters. She will keep going back to it, writing and re-writing the story, changing the nature of the event with each iteration.
The children, ages 8 and 9, were staying with their grandmother while their mother recovered from yet another pregnancy. Mammy, as they call her, gave birth to 12 children and miscarried 7 times. Even for an Irish Catholic family, this was considered above and beyond the call of duty. There were sniggers at her husband’s funeral; he wore himself out, they joked, “with too much shagging”.
Whether it was the constant pregnancies that did it or something else, Mammy is a vague, insubstantial, clucking presence, not really meant for the role. Her children love her, although they long ago learned not to rely on her, not to trouble her when one of them got in trouble. “Don’t tell your mother,” their father always said, and they didn’t. Veronica can forgive her mother for her lapses, which are many. What she can’t forgive, she says, is the sex: “The stupidity of so much humping. Open and blind. Consequences, Mammy. Consequences.”
And now Liam, her favourite sibling – her partner in crime who became an alcoholic while Veronica chose marriage and suburban respectability – Liam has put stones in his pocket and drowned himself in the waters off Brighton Beach. It is Veronica who must pick up the pieces: travel to England, claim the body, and bring it back to Dublin to be buried. Grief-stricken, unable to sleep, she stops having sex with Tom, her husband. She loves him, she says, and doesn’t want a divorce, but she can’t sleep with him:
“So my husband is waiting for me to sleep with him again, and I am waiting for something else. I am waiting for things to become clear.”
And so she spends her nights wandering through her pleasant, middle-class, suburban house, trying to reconstruct the past. The seeds of Liam’s suicide, she thinks, are buried in his childhood, and hers. It has something to do with her grandmother, and the mysterious Lambert Nugent, the man Ada may have loved but didn’t marry.
Thus The Gathering has two meanings – maybe more. There is, of course, the coming together of family members in order to bury their brother. There is also the gathering that Veronica puts down on paper – the gathering together of strands of memory and imagination in order to reconstruct the past. Enright never allows the weight of these memories, many of which are painful, to overwhelm the story. She has a lightness of touch that relieves even the darkest moments: “Suicides always pull a good crowd,” she tells us, describing the mourners at Liam’s funeral. Veronica imagines Ada as a whore, one of the prostitutes rescued from the streets of Dublin by the Legion of Mary, “a religious organization dedicated, in 1967, to inanity and the making of tea”. She pictures Ada and Lambert having sex – “the bookie fucks the whore” is the way she puts it. Which is not, perhaps, the nicest way to be remembered by your granddaughter.
But it is, of course, all speculation. Veronica can’t ever really know what did or did not take place between Ada and Lamb Nugent. Even her moment of epiphany near the end, where she suddenly recalls witnessing something that happened to Liam, something might have set him on the road to alcoholism and suicide – even that is only speculation.
In brilliant, unsparing fashion, Enright shows us the ways in which misery and humour can co-exist in families. At the risk of sounding like a Raging Feminist (goddess forbid) I want to say that a man could never have written this book. First of all, it wouldn’t occur to him to write it. Nothing happens, so why would he bother? And second, the complexity of familial relationships – the way you can love your siblings while loathing their every move and wishing whole-heartedly you were an only child – it’s generally women who get this stuff.
A confession here: one of the reasons The Gathering appeals to me is because it never condescends to give advice. Neither Enright nor her characters have any pointers to give. You won’t find anyone in the Hegarty clan suggesting how you can quit drinking (which they all do, but never in front of each other). Or fix your marriage. Or save your brother. Or discover the truth.
The most you can do – the most any of us can do – is what Veronica does at the end of the book: move on with your life . . . your real life, the one you’ve been allotted. Because it is, in the end, all you have.
Last year, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Enright was asked if a story she had written was based on an actual event. “As to whether it really happen[ed],” she said, “the page is a free space. Anything can happen on the page.”
The page is a free space. Yes. YES.