If there is a single unifying characteristic in the disparate fictions of Ireland’s Anne Enright, it is her startling ability to convey the bleakest of subject matter through the most luminous prose. Time and again, one is taken aback by mediations on death and cruelty that depress by necessity at the same time they elate through style. This rare quality is most astonishingly evident in The Gathering, her fourth novel to date and, by no small measure, her finest.
Following the drowning death of her older brother Liam, Veronica Hegarty, one of 12 children born to parents who “bred as naturally as they might shit”, oversees the collection of his body in London and the subsequent funeral in Dublin. The flippant derision towards sex suggested in the above quotation pervades the novel, for just as Veronica struggles with the loss of her closest (which is not to say close) sibling, her marriage flounders and she finds herself prone to aching reminiscences. Enright handles this material with a graceful delicacy that, at just the right moments, gives way to acerbic observations and a seemingly peerless wit.
Recalling the final time she sleeps with her husband, their marriage being the result of past infidelity, Veronica comments “I realize he is having sex with someone else. No … I remember how much he wanted to have sex with someone else, when that someone else was me.” Enright strikes just the right tone here, allowing Veronica to voice her own vulnerability at the same time she embraces a somewhat untoward impulse to assign blame.
It’s an idea Enright captures even more effectively when Veronica, analyzing her young daughter’s character, states “Emily is a bit of a cat, and cats, I always think, only jump into your lap to check if you are cold enough, yet, to eat.” Here the comically macabre works in the same manner, yet its all the more effective both for its visceral punch and its less forgivable target. If mothers often entertain such thoughts about their children, there’s a reason they don’t voice them.
It’s a testament to Enright’s range that the same jaded narrator who produces the above lines describes the sexual impulse of her grandparents as the need to experience “the beating in your veins of someone else’s heart.” It is in such minute yet apt observations and in such perfectly rendered sentences that this novel’s greatest delights lie. The story is an unmistakably bleak one, yet its cumulative effect is far less draining than might be expected. The ability of language to transcend the morose details of daily life is not one of The Gathering’s principal thematic preoccupations, yet it leads by example.
Veronica’s imaginative leap into her grandparents’ conjugal bed is far from the only such incidence, for though the bulk of The Gathering’s action occurs in the wake of Liam’s death, the book’s chapters alternate between Veronica’s immediate circumstances, and memories and conjectures about her family’s history. As a corollary to the reconstructed events from her childhood, Veronica imagines her grandparents’ courtship. She begins the latter account with these words:
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. All right. Lambert Nugent first saw my grandmother Ada Merriman in a hotel foyer in 1925. This is the moment I choose. It was seven o’clock in the evening. She was nineteen, he was twenty-three.
If this sounds perfunctory, the reluctance is Veronica’s, not Enright’s own. Indeed, throughout most of the novel, Enright seems entirely incapable of a lazy paragraph. The obligatory tone used here serves to illustrate the difficulty with which Veronica conjures the imagined world of her grandmother’s past, and perhaps to some degree as a reproach to writers who inelegantly try to appropriate the generation-spanning sweep of novels like The Tin Drum and Midnight’s Children. It also works as a disarmingly simple opening to a story that is anything but.
Recalling a particularly painful event in her personal history, Veronica states, “though it hurt, I found that I was able to draw on more ancient hurts than that – and this is how I survived. This is how we all survive. We default to the oldest scar.” The scar Veronica defaults to after Liam’s death lies deep in their childhood, and it’s through this impulse that Enright filter’s Veronica’s recollections. And in her “need to bear witness to an uncertain event,” Veronica is creating as much as she’s recollecting. The account of her grandmother’s past is clearly fabricated from very limited concrete knowledge, and the memory lapses that compromise the account of her own past are just as evident. It’s not for nothing that the novel’s first sentence is, “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.”
The event in question, a sexual crime shrouded in mystery for much of the book, informs both Veronica’s immediate reactions to her brother’s death and the way she relates to those closest to her. It is also an account borne of external influences, for global events certainly affect at least the manner in which Veronica presents the past. No, “a child did not walk out of the confession box with his cupped hands holding a jigger of sperm,” but the crime she describes is of a kin, and no less abhorrent. In the distressed world of Veronica Hegarty, even the past is not safe from our turbulent present.
Enright won last year’s Booker Prize, and it’s easy to see why. The Gathering is a multigenerational saga that never sacrifices intimacy for affected grandeur, a domestic novel that feels limitless in scope, and a family tragedy that affirms the very life it laments. Though there were novels I preferred on last year’s shortlist, On Chesil Beach and The Reluctant Fundamentalist come to mind, there is no denying that Enright is a tremendously gifted writer.
If this is the peak of what her talents can produce, it is no mean summit. And if it is merely a promise of things to come, she’ll soon join Colm Tóibín and John Banville as one of the very best Irish novelists working today.