Dublin-born Anne Enright’s 2007 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering is a stylistic tour de force. Indeed, the quality that most places it within the Irish literary tradition is its besotted piss-elegant obsession with language. Language as balm and bulwark against anxiety and death. Language as weapon, as conveyor of lies and painful truths. Language as bullshit, poisoned by alcohol and Catholic guilt. When a providential tyke loudly shouts “Shut uhhhp!” at a funeral in the novel’s final pages, it’s like a plea for sanity and silence, a halt to the maddening inadequacy of our words to connect honestly with our experience of the world.
Enright’s prose is craggy and lyrical, epigrammatic and at times very, very funny:
The British, I decide, only bury people when they are so dead, you need another word for it. The British wait so long for a funeral that people gather not so much to mourn, as to complain that the corpse is still hanging around. There is a queue, they say on the phone (the British love a queue). They do not gather until the emotion is gone.
The first-person narrative voice belongs to 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty, who often seems drunk or desperate to be drunk or on the way to getting drunk (driving alone in her Saab in the dead of night), restaging over and over in her mind the familial trajectory that may have contributed to her brother Liam’s recent suicide by drowning (Virginia Woolf-style, weighted down with rocks in his pockets).
No Irish tale worth its salt is complete without a long climactic depiction of a funeral wake replete with ghostly psychosexual hauntings. On this score, The Gathering doesn’t disappoint. Veronica’s chilly marriage and two young daughters seem far more remote than her clannish childhood and memory’s awful persistence: growing up among eleven siblings, assorted oddball relatives and sinister hangers-on. And they don’t come any more sinister than the late Lambert Nugent, landlord and louse. It’s a name that conjures gas-lit streetlamps and twirly mustachioed villainy. Placed within the novel’s complex modern sensibilitiy, he’s also pathetic and all-too-humanly evil. The Gathering is a motley, monstrously dysfunctional portrait, constructed incrementally through layered flashbacks and emotionally-charged vignettes and asides. (“Although my father used to hit his children all the time, more or less, it was never personal.”)
It’s giving nothing away to say that sexual abuse plays a role in the story (and is hinted at in the novel’s opening sentence): the terrible secret of what happened in their grandmother’s house when Veronica was eight and Liam was nine. Enright, to her credit, doesn’t drag this out too long. The mystery is resolved for us midway through the novel (not without an element of ambiguity, but with nowhere near the kind of coy “doubt” overplayed by John Patrick Shanley in his comparatively crude Catholic parable) while still allowing for a twist at the end, worth the wait, and satisfying in its own way as a credible suggestion of a future that won’t merely recapitulate the miseries of the past. Enright’s hothouse writing, verging on the wildly melodramatic at times, is tempered by gallows humor and the deftness of her dialogue. Literary fiction of the highest calibre.