Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review of Booker Prize book "The Gathering" by Anne Enright

Irish Family Stories: The Gathering



The Booker Prize, along with all the other coveted awards that many writers stalk, is a magical, curious thing, like a fairy wand that instantly transforms mundane reality, grants renown, money, and status upon an individual writer who only a week before was just another writer trying to tell her truth and hoping sales would pick up. Indeed, this was the situation Anne Enright was in prior to the Booker Prize announcement.

In fact, The Gathering had sold only 3,553 copies in Britain before the award. Sales shot up to 350,000 after the winner was announced. Anne Enright author of three previous novels and a collection of short stories was the dark horse in the race; she did not expect to win. But win she did, and now even her old school friend has confessed she would have to “read it,” although she was “dreading it.” Enright laughed off this response as she had grown use to the book being described as ‘grim’, ‘laconic’, ‘darkly rich’, and possessing ‘ no consolation.’ The Guardian announced: 'Outsider beats favorites to scoop prize for tale of dysfunctional family life set in Ireland.' There is more such praise but I will depart from the mainstream opinion experts and say I am glad I knew none of this when I read the book. I did know it had won the Man Booker Prize for 2007 and like it or not, this sort of knowledge affects the intimate experience of reading.

The strongest aspect of The Gathering is not the actual story, which wanders into memories of events that could have happened, but maybe did not, and then into the present crises in the narrator’s marriage: should she leave or should she stay? The Hegarty clan’s tale of love and loss, of possible sexual abuse by a distant family member is not unique, in this time of confessional memoirs and the child sexual abuse scandal currently raging in the Catholic Church. The actual facts the grieving narrator works so hard at remembering do not save her from pain or depression, but her search leads readers into questions about the nature of desire, the power of the flesh and the hatred of loved ones that are not a part of less demanding, less well-written novels.

But the narrator’s voice is compelling, assertive, and demands that you see things her way. Veronica is an angry, grieving, modern woman who cannot come to grips with the ridiculousness of living and the misery of dying. “Why bother?” she wonders. Her mother had 12 children, 7 miscarriages, one killed himself, the others went on living-for the time being. We are all here to just ‘feed the grave,’ the narrator spews out in her grief and hatred of her father and mother, whom she thinks over procreated. She sees her mother as a baby factory.

“I have not forgiven her for my sister Margaret who we called Midge, until she died, aged forty-two, from pancreatic cancer, I do not forgive her my beautiful, drifting sister Bea. I do not forgive her my first brother Ernest, who was a priest in Peru, until he became a lapsed priest in Peru. I do not forgive her my brother Stevie, who is a little angel in heaven. I do not forgive her the whole tedious litany of Midge, Bea, Earnest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice and the twins, Ivor and Jem.”

Veronica, a thirty nine year old mother of two children, with a proper husband living in Dublin is predominately angry in her grieving and that anger is the force that drives the narrative of memories. What made Liam commit suicide by donning a bright orange road worker’s vest then filling it with stones and walking into the ocean at Brighton Beach one night? His body was pulled from the sea and saved in an English morgue locker for Veronica to identify. He was not wearing underpants under his jeans. He didn’t want to be found dead in dirty under pants. Veronica deduces this about Liam and it shows us how much she understood him. As I read this passage, I had a flash of memories about the way a whole generation of Irish and Italian Catholic working class kids were raised in the neighborhood I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. They were constantly being told that ‘cleanliness was next to godliness ’ and that they shouldn’t ever be caught in a situation in which they could be perceived as unclean.

Veronica clearly loves her brother but calls him ‘a messer’, a ‘chaos maker’, someone who never ‘pulled it together’ and made a ‘go of life’. Enright explores the haunting and unproductive power of memory and its hold on the living, on the ones who remain after ‘the thing’ is done.

"The seeds of my brother’s death were sown many years ago. The person who planted them is long dead- at least that’s what I think. So if I want to tell Liam’s story, then I have to start before he was born. And, in fact, this is the tale that I would love to write: History is such a romantic place, with its jarveys and urchins and side buttoned boots. If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head."

But no matter how much she remembers or figures out about the sexual abuse of her beautiful brother, there is no one left to blame as they are all now dead. This adds to Veronica’s conundrum about life itself. This is a book that mirrors life too realistically for many reviewers comfort.

The book has been praised for its muscularity, agility and witty perceptiveness, as well as hallucinogenic, dark, lyrical prose. Interesting to find such manly terms applied to a woman’s writing.

Anne Enright will be participating in The Ubud Writers and Reader’s Festival (October 6-10, 2010).

1 comment:

Lynne Beclu said...

Thankyou for your review of 'The Gathering' Tamarra. With my Irish ancestors reading it over my shoulder and stories of a friend's sister's (never written two ''s' before!) sexual abuse by her father surfacing as I was a rich experience to say the least.....
I will have a look for the book in Byron and would LOVE to be to be in Ubud in October to meet the author but will probably be camping with my daughter, her partner and two of my grandchildren on an island off the coast of Queensland.
Life is such a journey.....and here's to a swift recovery for you!
ps I started a blog recently about my work 'School Days', also on Blogger. Perhaps we could be called 'blogmates'?