A. L. Kennedy, ‘The Din Within’, review of The Gathering by Anne Enright, in The Guardian (28 April 2007)

Source: The Guardian online - accessed 23.03.2010.

Anne Enright cares about being right with words. To tell the story is not enough - it has to be well told. Not that you’ll necessarily find her work eager to please - nothing so easy or fawning: it’s more the end result of what I’d guess is an almost involuntary drive to do justice to both the work and the reader. Whatever she’d list as her motivations, Enright has thus far produced essays, short stories and three novels, all alive with that lovely thing - a fully realised voice: muscular, agile, sometimes witty, sometimes hallucinogenic, often dark and lyrical in a quiet and horribly skilful way.

The Gathering, her fourth novel, is ostensibly a simple thing. The plot, shaped around a protagonist who undergoes a shock, is knocked back physically and psychologically into past times and past places. Then comes the conclusion, where present and future are reformed in the light of histories that are suddenly newly perceived. Here Veronica Hegarty loses her already lost, lovely alcoholic brother Liam. His funeral sinks her back into the gathered ranks of her rambling Irish family - the dysfunctional, drinking, blue-eyed Hegartys. Meanwhile, Liam’s ghost hounds her out through memories and fantasies: her apparently tidy existence, her husband and children seeming more distant with each thought.

And, of course, The Gathering isn’t a simple thing at all - it’s a genuine attempt to stare down both love and death, to anatomise their pains and fears and peculiar pleasures. At which point I ought to talk about the sheer physicality of Enright’s writing. The one word roar recurs though the text, as if to remind us of the din within each of her characters: strangers meet in a hotel and share the presence of potential nakedness without a touch; Liam’s thirst for alcohol rages while Veronica’s pads along behind her through insomniac nights; a moustache can barely be noticed before its description moves on to the idea of tickled thighs. Sex - for Enright, as for John Banville - is a kind of gleefully appalling slapstick that dogs humanity and leaves it betrayed. This is a world where fidelity is impossible and sex is absurd, but love is forever, like a scar. And it isn’t only sex that works on the body - death is both a comfort and a rapist. The fear and bewilderment it brings the living echo through flesh, and Enright is unflinching as she documents all the physical symptoms of emotion and memory. Bones and words always lurk under the skin, equally stark and disturbing.

All of which might become overwhelming were it not for the lightness and beauty of the prose. Veronica reminds us that she is named for the saint who wiped Christ’s face on his way to the cross, producing his image “on her tea towel”, a nun tells her - this was “the first ever photograph”. Veronica mentions, characteristically deadpan, that she still thinks of the saint whenever she’s given a moist towel after a Chinese meal. It’s a joy to be with a book that combines the exalted and the profane so handily, that crafts compulsive disclosure until it can dart from tenderness to anger, to dry humour, to the anguish that drums through the narrative. Like many good protagonists, Veronica notices things, maybe notices too much: makes pictures helplessly as she stops sleeping with her husband, fails to love her daughters and her mother as she should, resents her family and grieves for her unforgivable brother.

Although Liam appears relatively seldom, his portrayal is pitch-perfect. The beautiful boy who destroys himself, the huge eyes begging impossible love, the hearts of his women rifled and then broken before the final act of liquid self-destruction, a march into the sea, pockets full of stones. He becomes the ultimate definition of love’s stupidity - an outpouring of energy towards people who are always destined to disappoint, to be disappointed and, above all, who are compelled to leave us in the most devastating way, by dying. The horror and wonder of love, we are shown, is that it outlives its object. Enright’s deft handling of time slowly layers up possibilities and errors for her characters, time spent and time ahead cocooning them. The effect gives the narrative a satisfying depth - the author’s continued revelations of mortality, even pointlessness, are cold, if not cruel, and yet the telling out of individual lives, the unblinking attention, is rooted in compassion.

For some, this kind of narrative will always be uncomfortable - too many feelings and not enough action. The little world of lit crit can seem a bloodless place, populated by those whose stomachs never lurch when they’re nervous, whose pupils never dilate when they see someone they love, whose hearts beat with utter regularity, far from the ignorant and animal.

Yet 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. She has uncovered the truth that sometimes our great adventures are interior. When someone we love dies, leaves, the action is elsewhere. That battle with cancer, that dramatic crash, that bolt from the blue - it’s all scripted for someone else. And yet still we insist on being changed, moved, reshaped. It is our nature, the nature Enright charts. Because narratives run on all kinds of levels. To misunderstand this is to reduce our stories to a kind of dull pornography - actions performed without emotion, without depth, by people we will never know and for whom we feel nothing. For Enright, the body, the mind, the will, the world, the heart - all work upon each other in a terrible, wonderful roar of life.


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