Monday, 19 November 2007

Book Review - The Gathering by Anne Enright

Irish outsider strikes gold with grim family tragedy

Anne Enright was the outsider to win last month’s Man Booker Prize 2007, perhaps the best known of all British literary accolades. Despite this, the Irish 45 year old beat off stiff competition from authorial heavyweights such as Ian McEwan to walk away with £50,000 for her fourth novel ‘The Gathering’.

‘The Gathering’ is a funereal family occasion that reunites nine disparate Irish siblings following the suicide of their troubled brother, Liam. Veronica Hegarty, the sister closest to Liam, is psychologically and physically tormented by her loss, and seeks out the reasons for Liam’s death in the family’s dark history. And so the novel oscillates between the past and present, the real and the imagined.

Veronica imagines her grandparents meeting in 1925 in a hotel foyer, spinning stories to compensate for the lost truth, and ease her overworked mind. She returns repeatedly to the tunnel-vision of childhood memory: lilac flowers on her grandmother’s dress, seaside sandwiches in waxed paper, her eight year old brother on his knees before a squirming man, in the front room. It is Veronica’s inability to comprehend these childhood events and her obsession with reconstructing a lost past that renders her sleepless and drunk each night, some thirty years later.

Enright described ‘The Gathering’ as ‘the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie’. Whilst it is rather exquisitely bleak in places, attention to detail and Enright’s knack for good storytelling makes ‘The Gathering’ more enthralling than depressing. The Irish clichés are there: big family, relentless alcoholism, childhood abuse. But there is also clarity of tone and an underlying wit that stops the narrative from going stale. Action packed it is not, but the way Enright evokes human emotion, so precisely, really is quite astounding.

‘The Gathering’ has been a controversial prizewinner for some literary critics, distracted by sober distaste for Enright’s remarkably grim evocations of carnal desire, or disappointed, maybe, by a plot that largely takes place in the hazy realms of the narrator’s mind. But Enright’s razor-sharp eye for detail so exactly captures the essence of internal human struggle that her prose seems to crawl out from under the reader’s skin and onto the page. The result is a novel that explores the excruciating imperfections of human perception and recollection inch by inch, with unflinching honesty. The ghosts Veronica grapples with are her own, but the magnificent exploration of the universal themes of self-denial, shame, and flesh and blood love makes this an immensely satisfying read.

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