Eve Patten, review of The Gathering by Anne Enright, in The Irish Times (5 May 2007)

Details: Eve Patten, ‘Tracking back to the truth’, review of The Gathering by Anne Enright, in The Irish Times (5 May 2007).

In one of her previous novels, What Are You Like? (2000), Anne Enright used the story of Irish twins, brought up apart from each other, to illuminate the ironies and tensions always present within blood relationships.

It’s something of a surprise that she returns to similar territory in her latest novel, The Gathering, particularly after the vast historical and geographical stretch of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002), with its recreation of 19th-century Paraguay. Might not this retreat to the subject of the Irish dysfunctional family be a backward step, one that signals a misfit between the capaciousness and dynamism of her mordant prose, and the familiarity, the ordinariness, of her subject?

But then, this is Anne Enright, for whom even the mundane - especially the mundane - is an occasion of spin, and this is a tale so well spun, in general, that the reader is immediately drawn in. The Gathering is the story of Veronica Hegarty, who, following the suicide of her brother Liam, is thrown into a traumatic revisiting of her family’s past. Sometimes recalling and sometimes reconstructing this troubled hinterland - or blurring the two categories in what she calls a “mangling” - she gradually confronts the steps which led to Liam’s desperate conclusion. The gathering of the numerous siblings of the Hegarty clan for his wake parallels a gathering of evidence, sifted by Veronica from the crowded images of her own childhood and adolescence.

And so this is a classic revelation plot, with child sexual abuse at the heart of its matter. Again, familiar, but in her treatment of the abuse theme Enright takes several unexpected tacks, pursuing, often with characteristic explicitness, the varied encounters which make up the complex fabric of human sexuality. Veronica’s flagging sexual relationship with her husband or erotic memories of her American lover are only surface components of a narrative tracking at a deeper level the sexualised nature of everyday childhood encounters; the occasion, for example, when a bus driver pushed his large stomach against her, “the surprising tautness and bounce of it, as it he jabbed it at my face with its leading white button”, or the time she was made to reach under her grandmother’s skirt to fasten sagging stockings to an ancient corset.

The psychological twist of the book, meanwhile, lies in the displacement of the abuse narrative from the victim himself, and its careful re-setting around Veronica’s jagged version of her brother’s suffering. Her closeness to Liam, physically through sharing a bed in childhood, chronologically as the sibling born only 11 months after him, puts pressure on her convoluted recollections. There are hints, here, of other repressed sexual instincts, shadowing Veronica’s adult psyche and exacerbating the crisis she undergoes as an affluent Dublin housewife, whose convertible Saab and five- bedroom detached house fail to compensate for a life strung out between passion and frigidity.

And so, in The Gathering, it is this woman, the narrator of the story, who serves as the neurotic centre of a domestic collapse. In Veronica’s needy relationship with her two young daughters, Enright perhaps updates elements of her recent non-fiction book, Making Babies (2004), with motherhood encapsulated as “just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy even to love you”. Elsewhere Veronica’s obsessions are made symbolic of an Ireland fast obliterating the traces of its familial histories in its heady pursuit of “property” over “home”: in a telling sequence, she imagines buying up her grandmother’s dark old house in Dublin’s Broadstone and bringing to it the clarifying, cleansing force of the designer architect:

I will wear a sober trouser suit and incredibly silly heels and click-clack my way across the bare boards, while telling him to rip out the yellow ceiling and the clammy walls; to knock down the doorway to the front room, but save the Belfast sink in the little kitchen ...

The past is only pure when self-consciously invented, something brilliantly achieved in the descriptions of the initial romantic meetings between Ada, Veronica’s grandmother, and her would-be lover, Lambert Nugent. The dramatisation of their first encounter nods to Joyce, not only through its setting in the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel, but also through its linguistic indulgence in a landscape of “jarveys and urchins and side-button boots”. A Joycean verve lurks too, behind a sharp, self-contained chapter detailing the couple’s Easter excursion to the Fairyhouse races, when all of O’Connell Street is lined with charabancs and the city is recovering from its long Lenten abstinence:

Twenty girls have been decanted into the Sancta Maria hostel and dried out at either end. Everyone has been praying day and night, night and day, until they are fed up with it, the whole city has had it up to here, they have suffered the ashes and kissed the rood and felt truly, deeply, spiritually cleaned out: Easter dawns, thanks be to Jay, and when they have eaten and laughed and drunk and looked at the daffodils they go to bed to make love ...

Such passages are a reminder, if one were needed, that Enright is still pre-eminent as a stylist: only Mary Morrissy, among her Irish contemporaries, can match her descriptive economy and flair. Enright has the added skill of a kind of stagecraft in her writing, shown to terrific effect in the novel’s scenes of sex and confrontation. But, to go back to my earlier question, does the swagger of her style sometimes hint at an excess, or again, a misfit? If so, it shows up here, I think, in the narrative voice: sometimes one is wearied by the cleverness and ubiquity of the trademark epigrammatic observations (“There is nothing as tentative as an old woman’s touch”), or alienated by the knowing interventions (“It’s a heady business, burying the dead”). This is a good story but essentially a very simple one - underwhelming even - which risks being overloaded by these wry punches.

Of course I’d rather lose the story than the style, but this is really a roundabout way of saying that Enright’s style can obviously accommodate broader subjects, and I hope that in the future she might let it loose on something more meaty - a big, brassy political satire, perhaps. In the meantime, The Gathering will certainly do as a welcome return, for this writer, to the novel form, and as a fresh, sophisticated take on the ever-popular dysfunctional family saga.

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