It is 1999. Veronica’s drunkard brother Liam has drowned himself in the sea at Brighton. Shock, guilt, and heartache assault her, immediately and until five months after. Struggling with a thirty-year-old secret that she suspects marked the beginning of Liam’s progression towards death, she copes by writing a fictional account centering on her grandmother Ada and the two men in her life. As the Hegarty clan gathers together for Liam’s wake, Veronica reflects on their shared past and strives to accept the variedly eccentric members of her family.
In this book, healing begins with history, both real and fictive. Veronica remembers in order to understand the present, to dissolve the solid mass of her grief. “History is only biological,” she says. “We pick and choose the facts about ourselves—where we came from and what it means.” In a family as large as the Hegartys, relationships combine death and desire, love and lust, in equally painful proportions. Following Liam’s suicide, Veronica struggles to unravel these mysteries of the body, in the process uncovering many secrets surrounding her family as well as those within herself.
Anne Enright writes in a voice heavy with mourning, a slow, infinitely sad tone saturated with terrifically restrained grief. Although effective at times, I found it mostly tiring to read. Everything is sad, dramatic, emotional. Potentially poignant moments are lost in pages and pages of poetic drama. The writer’s fluid prose insists on an even poignancy, producing a slew of empty, unintelligible sentences like “I feel the future falling through the roof of my mind and when I look nothing is there.” This overly melancholic language was exactly what turned me off to this book four years ago: it bored me to no end. This second reading (undertaken because I couldn’t believe I spurned a Man Booker Prize winner) concludes with me appreciating the novel more, mostly for its technical beauty. It is beautiful, I know, but that is all. I did not feel any emotional attachment to it. The ending left me with nothing but a vague feeling of emptiness. At best, The Gathering is a moving story about love, the interrelation of bodies, lust—the terrible temporality of it all. At worst, it is a rambling monologue by a perpetually dissatisfied narrator, a melodramatic affair that even Enright herself calls “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.”
There are so few people given us to love.
There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important.
We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more.
I do not think we remember our family in any real sense. We live in them, instead.
…the moment I saw them together I knew two things. The first was that he did not belong to her, and the second was that he belonged to me.
We do not always like the people we love—we do not always have that choice.