Anne Enright couldn’t have chosen a title more apt for her latest novel, “The Gathering.”
It works in a literal sense. Liam Hegarty is dead, and his large Irish family is gathering for his wake. But it works in a more figurative way. Liam’s sister, Veronica, who was closest to him, is gathering information about how he came to drown. And striving to gather her wits, too.
But Enright is not an author who serves up easy answers in her fiction. Why did Liam die? Will the family be all right? Will Veronica?
Enright, who lives in Ireland, was traveling in the United States last week in support of the novel, the winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize. She discussed it by phone from her hotel in Seattle.
The use of an unreliable narrator is not uncommon in fiction, but yours, Veronica, admits in the book’s first sentence she’s not sure herself what has happened. Why did you decide to start a novel that way?
I was working on an epic about three generations of a large Irish family, but that book fell apart for me. It was so makey-uppy _ it was the shadow book behind this book. I was going to write about the Hegartys, three generations, tell their stories, no messing, no whatever.
But I realized this was sort of a false hope because I couldn’t be that certain about them all. Veronica couldn’t be that certain about them all, either, and Veronica was the heart of the book. So I had to let all that fall apart and just go through her, see what she saw, sift through the information as she might’ve sifted through it, and just build that uncertainty into the book.
Liam has committed suicide. Ultimately, Veronica, seeker of answers, has to accept she may never fully understand his death, right?
She’s looking for the causes, and I don’t think we can do cause and effect that simply in life. She does arrive at a point where she says certain things have certain effects. But I don’t believe in destiny. I don’t believe a family is doomed. I absolutely feel that suicide removes people from the chain of cause and effect. And that is one of the reasons why it’s so attractive, in a funny way.
So the phrase “he took his life” can be almost literal? Because a suicide, even if the person leaves a note, never can be fully explained?
Yes, (they remove themselves) from explanation. When you talk about things triggering things, there’s a whole world of consequences. And that’s interesting to writers.
As Veronica struggles with Liam’s death, her own life suffers. Her marriage gets rocky. Tom, her husband, is a decent enough fellow, but they disconnect, especially physically. In fact, the book’s view of sex is rather problematic, isn’t it?
Veronica’s definitely gone off sex for the duration of the book. She keeps on probing the idea of sex; she can’t get away from it. And that to me reflects the secret of the heart of the book. Veronica is endlessly ruminating about male sexuality because she doesn’t know how a man can do (emotional) damage and call it sex. ... I’m writing about monsters here, you know? Veronica’s monsters. All men are not the same, though. You get the sense that when Veronica accuses Tom of such damage, that she’s being really unfair. Actually, he’s not really cruel at all.
Another idea in your book is that sex can be, if not emotionally damaging, a sort of burden _ it can be a burden to love or desire someone. The heart is hard to control, isn’t it?
It’s a very leaky object, the heart. And Veronica’s problem isn’t specifically desire; it’s love. There’s a huge overlap between the two, of course.
Veronica, I’m pretty sure, wishes she didn’t love her brother. She doesn’t know why we love people when they die, why we bother going through all of that palaver and all of that pain. But we have no choice _ it’s absolutely beyond our choice. We don’t choose to love people. We probably don’t choose to desire them, either.
I, as a writer, am interested in the differences between a kind of biological love, which is what Veronica calls the “idiot’s love” her mother has for all her children, and chosen, sexual or romantic love. But it doesn’t seem that that’s all in our control, either.
It’s interesting that often if one is married for many years, the relationship begins to feel not only like romantic love but also like familial love. The boundaries blur. Therapists see couples whose existences have become almost sibling-like.
Well, you are family! And when you make children, it alters things enormously, in a funny way, because that’s where romantic love and biological love make sense—that’s the result!
Some reviewers have said your novel offers no consolation. You don’t quite believe that; there’s humor, for one thing. But is it really the job of fiction to console us?
Oh, I would love if that were so. I wonder whether that quotation meant that there are no external consolations offered by the book. God doesn’t lend a helping hand; religion isn’t a consolation to Veronica. But certainly her children are an enormous consolation to her, and I think she comes through a very painful process and repossesses her life. She is going to live it with a greater degree of authenticity or ownership. Any happiness in the book is very hard-won, which to me makes it more precious.
One thing that’s appealing about the book is that you are totally in control of the passage of time. It’s not linear, your presentation of the story, but it’s still controlled. You play with it, yet I never got lost. How’d you do that?
There are two present time lines, which was a bit of a technical challenge. Once I had them, though, I was OK. But the thing is that I go for a narrative arc rather than a narrative structure , and I can hang anything I like on that arc if I work it OK. In the process of writing, it’s almost as if I’m filling up a cup, you know? And when the cup is full then the book is finished. It’s very organic.
What is the most rewarding thing to you about being a writer?
What I tell my kids is that it’s a great life because you don’t have a boss. I don’t like being managed; I like people telling me what they think _ then making up my own mind.