Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

"The Gathering" by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, 2007)

It begins with a kind of in media res mood-prelude (as do several of her stories), then settles down, though the time-line's never linear for long.

Veronica, the narrator comes from a big Irish family. In the old days, life was busy -

Don't tell Mammy
This from Midge, especially, but also from any one of the older ones. If something broke or was split, if Bea did not come home or Mossie went up to live in the attic, or Liam dropped acid, or Alive had sex, or Kitty bled buckets into her new school uniform, or any number of phone messages about delays, snarl-ups, problems with bus money and taxi money, and once catastrophically, Liam's night in the cells. None of the messages relayed: the whispered conference in the hall, Don't tell Mammy

Now her mother's demented. Veronica's come back to tell them that Liam's dead.

One device is that the narrator tells us she's imagining what happened to others in the past, so for example we read how she thought her grandparents might have met in 1925, etc. This offers the writer a chance to present alternative possibilities but we don't often get them at first. She does however correct some memories as she goes along, remembering that certain people must have been present though she recalls nothing of them. The narrating's sometimes self-conscious - "Poor Charlie. His was the first corpse I ever saw; massive and still under Ada's rose-pink eiderdown. Which is why is it a kind of blasphemy to write of their marriage night in the same bed - though blasphemy seems to be my business here" (p.59)

Liam died in Brighton, England, so she journeys over, reminiscing on the way - "we ran around the streets or played around The Basin, an artificial lake whose water had once been used in the making of Irish whiskey. It was this fact that obliged Liam to piss into it, and this is the picture I have of him in my head, a small boy swinging up his behind to sling the arc of his pee up in the air, the urine spattering against the wire or pouring, suddenly easy, through a diamond in the mesh" (p.48)

It will take 10 days to ship the body back. She thinks her husband, Tom, is unfaithful. She fancies the young undertaker. She thinks about Ada again. Note the trajectory of the thoughts in the following extract - herself, Ada, Women, herself - and the combination of sharp-focussed detail with generalisation

I think of her when I do the dishes. Of course I have a dishwasher, so if I ever have to cry, it is not into the sink, quietly like Ada. The sink was her place for this. Facing out of the back of the house, something about the endless potatoes that needed peeling, or the paltriness of the yard, but, like all women maybe, Ada occasionally had a little sniffle and then plink, plink, a few tears would hit the water in the sink. Like all women Ada sometimes had to wipe her nose with her forearm because her hands were wet. There is nothing surprising about this. Though I have to say, I have a stainless-steel Miele dishwasher. And if I have any crying to do, I do it respectably, in front of the TV. (p.89)

On p.142 things get serious - "It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams". She tells us how she witnessed Liam's sexual abuse. Later she's unsure of the details, wonders if she was involved.

The end is rather fragmentary, perhaps because of her precarious mental state. She has a phase of sneaking out of the house at night to drive. Or to drink and drive. She knows something's wrong with her. She's in a loveless marriage with kids. She revisits places from her childhood, wonders whether she has the right location because the places doesn't match her memories, then realises that places change too. The family gather from around the world for the wake. Some are nearly strangers to her. She hallucinates. That night she and her husband have sex for the last time. Chapter 36 jumps to 5 months later, then we return to the main time sequence again. She wants everyone to know who molested Liam - he could be responsible for the family's other woes. She wonders who owned Ada's house and considers buying a house. She flees to Gatwick, stays there a night and plans to return immediately, wonders about having a third child.

Other reviews

  • Eleanor Birne (The narrator is someone new too; part of the new Ireland. She is Veronica, the dead Liam’s (slightly) younger sister, who lives a comfortable middle-class existence, and is trying to work out where she fits in with all this – with their combined past, and Liam’s death ... The Gathering is a gathering of family members around one of their dead, but it is also a gathering of facts, of evidence.)
  • AL Kennedy (This is a world where fidelity is impossible and sex is absurd, but love is forever, like a scar. ... Enright's work is neither mindless nor inhuman; it is clearly the product of a remarkable intelligence, combined with a gift for observation and deduction.)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (So large a family is more like a tribe, with its own rites of passage ... Anne Enright has all she needs in terms of imagination and technique and she's a tremendous phrase-maker. All that I would timidly offer her is a bouquet of 'as ifs' with which to vary her 'likes'.)
  • Ling Ma (A common theme in earlier works that’s more noticeable here, Enright fixates and marvels at the plain biological facts of sex with the consequential emotional realities of family. ... her prose can be so gun-slingingly sublime, but the narration is often so footloose that it almost overrides the plot and characters themselves.)
  • Liesl Schillinger (in this mystery of past causes, the transformative power of Enright’s language keeps the story’s freight from burdening the reader. Veronica’s reminiscences have an incantatory power that makes them not depressing but enthralling ... With her curiously spare yet baroque style and her merciless eye, Anne Enright has beguiled critics for nearly two decades. In the past, she has often let fantasy or coincidence shape her creations. ... In this new novel, however, Enright hides her painterly brushstrokes.)
  • Goodreads

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