Thursday, November 08, 2007

Review—The Gathering

Irish literature is reinventing itself in the 21st century, with robust writers like Colm Toibin and John Banville achieving both critical and commercial success. Curiously, these writers, along with Anne Enright, also share the way they treat their narratives. Be it the solitary protagonists of Banville’s The Sea and The Untouchable, or the haunting wretchedness of Toibin’s The Master, there is silent grimness to their tales, which gives off the odor of death. Enright tackles this issue head on, in The Gathering. Veronica Hegarty is passing through the aftermath of her beloved brother Liam’s death by suicide. Liam, a struggling alcoholic, walked into sea at Brighton with rocks in his pockets (strangely reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s death). But that is not the point of the story, neither is it the “gathering” of the large Hegarty family for the funeral, though they are important events in the timeline.

Rather, it is the personal, the intimate, the shattering revelations of love and betrayal that form the backdrop here. The book encapsulates very little by way of plot, yet the sights and sounds within Veronica’s mind create a smorgasbord of emotions, whose template is brilliantly woven by Enright. Liam, the enigmatic: merciless in love, magnanimous in doling largesse. Indeed, he comes across as a stock left-liberal, gone to waste against an incompatible world. It’s interesting how Enright looks through the glass into many of our times’ preoccupations: materialism, denunciation, the battle of good and evil, and offers a uniquely inverted view on each. Like where Veronica sounds out her dissatisfaction with the hint of pride that Liam showed in his encompassing of the poor and the lonely: “I know I sound bitter, and Christ I wish I wasn’t such a hard bitch sometimes, but my brother blamed me for twenty years or more. He blamed me for my nice house, with the nice white paint on the walls, and the nice daughters in their bedrooms of nice lilac and nicer pink.”

And yet, there is the contradiction in defending her prim life versus her own exasperation with the mawkishness that wraps her at home. Her husband is fine, but he is just another person in the long litany of her acquaintances. So are her daughters. There is nothing special about their presence in her life, as there has been nothing special about her elongated string of siblings and her mother and her dead father. But with Liam, it was different. A sort of violence existed between them, Liam and Veronica, a sort of love. Something that she cannot hope to replicate in her marital situation. For Liam was generous, he was great, but above all, he was broken. He was so attractively broken. Why did he fall over the abyss and not she? And why, in spite of the presence of every known comfort, does his absence keep hurting?

Veronica darts back and forth between memories and recollections and nobody wins out at the end. In Enright’s world, lives are too mixed up in the equations of love to be vindicated, even in death. There is a raucousness to the writing. It gives one the impression that Enright may have recorded her voice before transcribing it on paper. This is brought especially to light in descriptions of sex, which invariably include references to animal flesh. In Enright’s hands, sex is not something to celebrate, but a demeaning act that leaves vague impressions on the soul: “...I felt like meat that had been recently butchered, even as he felt terribly moved. If that is what he felt. He was very gasping and juddery, at any rate, like his nerves were all alight...So I lie there, side by side with him, and I contemplate the spreading bruise of my private parts.”

There is also a convoluted though strangely satisfying coda about the grandmother, Ada, who makes recurring appearances right from the start. She is to blame for something, the reader gathers, but what exactly? Then, short of the finish, Enright brings it on, in another nuanced reflection of culpability and the truths and semi-truths our lives are encumbered by. The Gathering is a well-deserved addition to Anne Enright’s redoubtable oeuvre, and indeed, to the Irish canon.


Eric Forbes said...

Another excellent review! The Gathering is certainly one of my favourite books of this reading year.

Vikram Johri said...

Many thanks, Eric. I'm not sure you know about Diwali. It's Hindus' most important festival, and we are celebrating it today. This doesn't apply, but Happy Diwali to you.

Eric Forbes said...

Happy Diwali to you, too, Vikram!