The Gathering by Anne Enright [2007 Booker Prize]

The gathering

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.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 7, 2016, in Book Reviews, Irish authors, Man Booker Prize and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. This sounds like a book I’ll feel enriched for having read, but won’t necessarily enjoy. Certainly not if I’m already feeling a little blue. But you do make it sound worth giving a go.

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  2. I don’t think this is one of the more popular Booker winners, but I like The Gathering more than the popular ones. Blame it on the memory themes. I’m a sucker for those.

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    • I’ve certainly seen a few comments on Goodreads which were pretty negative. I think it was because some readers found the jumps in narrative frustrating whereas for me they worked extremely well

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  3. I was caught up in the storyline as soon as you mentioned the memory issues, from her mother’s forgetting her name, to her own somewhat unreliable memory of childhood experiences. Now I am hooked! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. I loved this so much. I feel I would love to re-read it. I do have The Green Road and The forgotten Waltz tbr though which I should read for the first time first.

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  5. I haven’t had enough Enright in my reading life…. Forgotten Waltz or this one next??

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  6. This doesn’t sound like an ‘easy read’ but it does sound insightful which means I’m very tempted to tackle it. I’m fascinated by families, particularly large ones and this one seems to tread a less-oft travelled path than most.

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    • A lot of Irish novels seem to contain the same elements like lapsed priests and drunks plus of course lots of rain and cups of tea. You’ll find many of those in The Gathering but it does take a different slant so well worth reading

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  7. The Reading Bug

    Although it’s not been that long since I read this (and wrote about it) my recollection of it has faded – never a good sign. But I recall not enjoying the unrelenting miserabilist tone of it. Anything else of hers that anyone can recommend that’s a bit lighter/less depressing?

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  8. I loved Enright’s Forgotten Waltz (such a gleefully unrepentant central character, and nice observations on the Irish boom and bust), and have The Green Road (which generally doesn’t seem to be seen as one of her best). This, eh, apart from my general allergy to Irish miserabilism as a genre it sounds interesting but perhaps a bit of a trudge.

    The cover is clearly intended to evoke the misery memoir genre (the “Daddy, No!” books) which seems an odd choice. Odd and frankly rather offputting since I view that genre as just about the least literary out there.

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  9. I loved this book too, I said in my review that “It’s not easy reading, but it’s strong and purposeful in the way that Enright reveals some most unpalatable aspects of human nature without pessimism or bitterness. Some parts will make you laugh in spite of yourself…”
    I have The Green Road on my TBR (probably recommended by Kim, all the Irish on my TBR are down to her) and I really must read it soon.

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    • Unfortunately i was less than enamoured with The Green Road. There are some sections – the ones relating the story of a gay man in USA at the time Aids began to raise its ugly head and of a daughter who devotes her life to her family – which are excellent. But overall it felt like a series of short stories glued together.

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  10. I remember reading this and feeling as if I was falling into the depths of despair: it’s quite a heavy book. But, like you, I admired what Enright does with memory; the way she writes about it is rather extraordinary. It’s a story that has stayed with me. I read it in 2007 (I was thrilled when it won the Booker; I’d just got off a plane in New York and my Other Half, who had remained home in London, was under strict instructions to text me the winner. I may possibly have done a little victory dance in JFK Airport.)

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    • It’s one that for me will stand re-reading without any loss of the experience. The only other novel by Enright I’d read was The Green Road which I found under-powered. The same certainly can’t be said of The Gathering

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