Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Book of the Month: The Gathering (Anne Enright)

I must admit to a certain weakness in my character: I have become rather squeamish about reading Irish novels, especially the seriocomic family sagas, lest I am deluged with Irish-childhood clichés: the drunken father who is either insanely violent (very common) or smotheringly affectionate (less common) or both (though obviously not at the same time); over-worked, perennially pregnant, brow-beaten wife; a funny and witty family friend or an uncle, who—need I say it?—is also a drunkard and whom the wife blames bitterly for leading her man astray; too many children, some of whom are uncut diamonds while others are budding psychopaths; sexual abuse which goes either unnoticed or is connived at; one or more of the children die young (because there isn’t enough money to pay the doctor’s fee); perpetually gloomy weather with incessant rain; and various characters drinking endless cups of tea at very odd times. So, when The Gathering, a novel about a large, dysfunctional Irish family that has a skeleton or two in the cupboard, won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, I was not sure whether I would find the courage (or patience) to read it. My sense of wariness was further heightened when the author, Anne Enright, issued, on Radio 4’s Today programme, the following warning: ‘When people pick up a book they may want something that will cheer them up, in that case they shouldn’t really pick up my book . . . My book is equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.’ I bought the book, of course: because it had won the Booker, and I am a great sucker for this and other literary awards (it is a well known fact that winning the Booker guarantees a huge boost to the sell of the book; I wonder how many of those who buy the book actually read it; I have known a few who keep Midnight’s Children on their book-shelves because they think it will chisel others into believing that they are intellectuals).

The Gathering , for the most part, is a ‘dear diary’ sort of novel. Veronica Hegarty, a middle-aged, middle-class housewife with her oh-so-not-perfect marriage, is reminiscing about her clan following the death of one of her (many) siblings, Liam, after he kills himself, although—and we are left in no doubt about this—he is already lost to the family, drifting along aimlessly in life, from one bed-sit to another, committing chronic suicide of a kind (before he decides to put an abrupt coda to his existence by drowning in the sea) by drinking, day and night, any which kind of alcoholic beverage he can lay his hands on. The novel travels to and fro in time as Veronica tries to make sense of why her brother, to whom she was the closest when they were young, felt the need to fill his trouser-pockets with stones and walk into the Brighten Sea. While much of Veronica’s thinking happens in the present, the novel moves effortlessly back in time (without much warning and without a change in tense, which can be a trifle confusing at times) as Veronica tries to convince herself (somewhat tortuously, you can’t help thinking) that the seeds of Liams death were sown decades earlier when their grandmother, Ada, walked into a Dublin hotel and saw Lamb Nugent. The Gathering, then, is a family story of three generations: it is the story of Ada and Charlie—Veronica’s grandparents, and the shadow of their association with Lamb Nugent; it is the story of Veronica’s over-breeding parents who bring into the world a dozen children all except one of whom survive into adulthood; and it is the story of the third generation Hegarty children—of some of them, at any rate—and their complex relations with one another and their mother.

The narrator, Veronica, is obsessed with sex and penises. A chapter in the book opens with Veronica, travelling on a train, watching a man sitting beside her lifting his pelvis slightly and settling it back down; and she ‘can sense the blood pooling in his lap; the thick oblong of his penis moving down the leg of his suit.’ Later, when the man reaches for a newspaper, it is, she decides, to hide his lap. The sunlight coming in through the window is ‘sexual’ (!). Another chapter begins with ‘I saw a man with tertiary syphilis at mass once.’ Veronica's obsession with sex is Freudian, however. She is repulsed by it; it is not a pleasurable act for her. On the night of her dead brother’s wake Veronica and her husband have sex. This is how she sees it in retrospect: ‘ He [her husband, Tom] was getting back to the basics. . .telling me that my brother might be dead, but he was very much alive. Exercising his right. . .I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips, and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.’ At another point she observes: ‘When I sleep with Tom … what he wants, what my husband has always wanted, and the thing I will not give him, is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred.’ It would be reasonable to conclude that the woman has enough inner demons to decorate hell. The tone of the narration (and, by extension, the ambiance of the novel) is sexual; however it is far from lilting, laced as it is with disgust and malignity.

The Gathering is novel of memories and reminiscences, and the tricks they can play with one’s mind. ‘The seeds of my brother’s death were sown many years ago’ starts a chapter. This is the central question that the narrator is wrestling with throughout the novel: what set her brother on the path of self-destruction, the path that ended in the Brighton sea. Veronica is convinced that it wasn’t the drink and the vicissitudes of life that killed him: it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house when he was nine that killed him. And Veronica was an inadvertant witness to the act. Or was she, really? As early as the first chapter, the very first page and the very first line, infact, there are warnings: ‘I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event.’ Much later she wonders whether her memory is false. In his adolescence Liam begins to get into trouble with autorities because of his conduct problems. When he spends a night in the police cell for the first time, he returns with a dried patch of blood in his hair and a streak of red from cheek to neck. When he tells his sister that ‘they’ gave him a bit of a thump, she tells him not to be stupid. ‘I decided not to believe him if there was any “believing” to be done; he did not deserve to be believed,’ she recalls later. Now he is dead, Veronica is torturing herself over the point in time when she first betrayed her brother. The Gathering is a long lament suffused with guilt; and, as frequently happens in these situations, the guilt mutates into rage. Veronica Heggarty’s emotional response to her brother’s suicide is uniquely Catholic: she is devastated that she could not rescue Liam from the grave and mortal sin of suicide. But she is also furious with him. By killing himself, Liam has offended his family’s love for him and has selfishly and unjustly broken the ties of solidarity with his family. His behaviour is cotrary to the love of God. He has let down the family. She is unable to accept that Liam could have taken an informed decision that to end his life was better than continuing to suffer the pain of his existence. She is determined to find something, someone, whom she can blame; even if that means recovering memories that probably did not exist, and concoting elaborate stories of menage a trois involving her grandparents.

The Gathering fulfils almost all the Irish childhood clichés, yet, aided by Enright’s flawless, at times darkly humorous, prose, is sharp, tense, poweful and continually engrossing. The Gathering was given a very long 8 to 1 odds of winning the Booker by the British Bookmakers. It may have been a surprise winner, but deserving one. It is a work of complex tapistry.