The Gathering by Anne Enright [2007 Booker Prize]
Veronica Hegarty is a woman whose life implodes when her favourite brother Liam stuffs his pockets with pebbles and walks into the sea at the age of 40. It falls to Veronica to travel to England to recover his body and take it home to Ireland for the funeral. As the sibling who best understood Liam, and was closest to him through their childhood, she accepts this task falls on her shoulders yet she also resents the fact all her other brothers and sisters take it for granted this is her responsibility.
She resents many things in her life does Veronica not least the fact that her mother keeps forgetting her name.
‘Oh hello’, she said as she opened the hall door, the day I heard about Liam.
‘Hello Darling’. She might say the same to the cat.
‘Come in. Come in’, as she stands in the doorway, and does not move to let me pass.
Of course she knows who I am, it is just my name that escapes her. Her eyes flick from side to side as she wipes one after another off her list.
‘Veronica!’ I feel like shouting it at her. ‘You called me Veronica!’
I could empathise with her frustration here having constantly been mixed up with my sister. But there were only two of us where Veronica it transpires, is the result of 17 pregnancies of which 12 children survived and 5 were miscarried. Little wonder the poor woman couldn’t remember which daughter was which. But the frustration with her mother’s forgetfulness is really a symptom of the far bigger problem in Veronica’s life: her lack of connection to any of her siblings except Liam and her dissatisfaction with her marriage. After Liam’s death her life begins to unravel and all the pent up emotions come to the surface:
I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.
Her behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. While her husband retreats to bed at the end of each night she stays up drinking wine, sometimes sitting outside the house in her car, sometimes just driving through the countryside until morning. In the midst of her grief she relives her memories of Liam and an incident which she has kept secret all these years.
How much can we trust her memory? She has only a hazy recollection of the incident that happened in her childhood. Nor can she be entirely sure that this was the cause of Liam’s ultimate alcoholism and death. Her recollections of other aspects of her past are similarly hazy with some events she believes she recalls didn’t even happen to her but to her sister. Early on, she tells the story of her grandmother Ada’s first meeting with Lambert Nugent, a man who in subsequent decades is ever present in the Hegarty household. Veronica teases us with hints that there was more to Ada and Lambert’s relationship than was strictly upright. But then goes and pulls the plug with an admission that she had imagined it all.
Enright’s exploration of memory is what captured my interest in The Gathering. Other authors of course have trodden this path but few have tackled it in such an inventive way. The narrative meanders, jumps forwards in time, and then loops back around to the start, giving the feeling you’re reading this while standing on one of those wobble boards that constantly shift the ground under your feet.
It’s a sad, almost grim book that deals with (possible) sexual abuse and the disintegration of a marriage. But Enright delivers this with aplomb.