The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering. which won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2007 , is set mostly in urban Ireland-Dublin. Veronica who narrates the story is in her late 30s with two children. She (and her siblings) are part of the newly prosperous Irish professional middle class . The occasion of her narrative is the arranging for a funeral and the coming together of the large family following the death of one of her brothers for whom she had particularly strong affection. Thereby hangs a tale with many stings. Veronica is reflecting on her family's lives and events and the passage of time. In going over her memories she is undergoing quite a bit of personal suffering throughout and as we find out - up to about 6 months after the funeral. The device is very cleverly used and the prose is particularly fine.

I don't want to make this sound like a simple family saga however - because it is a rich mine of social commentary , characterisation and analysis told in a story with insight and often humour. When the family members do come together the kitchen table drama is masterful and funny. But the big themes are always being examined - particularly Marriage , and the Church and the use and abuse of power and the effects on the lives of ordinary people especially children - often tragic ones. It is a very well structured novel which has some surprising and heartfelt twists and turns . Whilst Irish readers would identify the social settings and the changed details of urban life in Ireland from the 1930/50s to the 90s - there is a considerable relevance to Australia also.

A good critic and a teacher of literature I know commented that Anne Enright is one of the very best novelists around . She thought that her finest work was yet to come - the thought being when that happens it will be outstanding indeed. Whilst we await that I would recommend The Gathering as an introduction to the strong writing talent of Enright. I would love to hear some views on it. It should be readily available in libraries and as a paperback purchase - Jonathan Cape, 2007.


John Kennedy said...

I am Irish by birth, though I have lived in Australia since I was of primary school age. I approached this with considerable interest. Having now just completed reading it, I am not sure what I think.

Initially I did not like it. It does move slowly, and its approach is very impressionistic. Despite huge amounts of in-depth teasing out of thoughts and impressiona, little is ever very clear. We are sometimes not sure what is 'reality' and what fantasy - was Ada a prostitute? Did she have a sexual relationship with Nugent? But things do come together as the book progresses, and matters which at first seem simply tedious, like the long silent encounter between Ada and Nugent in the hotel foyer, take on a meaning. The wake scent does have a vivid power, and Enright does seem to capture something of the feel of an Ireland which has changed dramatically in some respects and little in others. (There is surprisingly little about the Church, though!)

I felt at the end that to a remarkable degree I did not understand the characters and what made then 'tick - even the narrator, Veronica, who seems to be on the brink of succumbing to the insanity of which there is a family history. Yes, I suppose it is a delusion to think we can ever understand anyone, but Enright seems to surround everyone with a certain fuzziness and lack of definition.

Yet, I do not think it is a novel I shall forget easily, and it is has a definite power.

John Kennedy

Faye said...

Your critique is so interesting John -everything you say makes sense . I was looking forward to hearing your point of view and I wasnt disappointed. I think Enright is a very female style of writer and not a light and easy one either - definitely an edgy one. This along with the fact that to my reading she has a good comic eye as well - a bit like many of the modern edgy female stand-up comics - seeing irony in everyday fanily situations. Re Veronica , the narrator, I agree she is having a bad time - going through a depression or something like that - so we are hearing all the time from one who is in a heightened state herself. When i read it the second time I found the plot held together a lot more - as always happens of course.

I talked about her sense of comedy - but many of the scenes in this book are heartrending - the Mothers lot , the Mothers brother . the fate pf the children when they stayed with their grandparents which I think, is the focus of the heavy emotion in the book. I think on reflection that the place of children in the lives of adults is the main message coming form the book overall and which gives it a darkish character too. You are right the Church as such does not have a strong role - I was wrong there.

For me Veronica as a narrator , works . The Ada recollections are strange but crucial, as I see it, to the burden of the story. I think Veronica does blame Ada for a lot of the problems but maybe she is trying to understand her at the same timebecause this is her heritage . The rent books are very significant and quite poignant really. Veronica appears to be coming out of her break down episode about 6 months after the funeral - so she is apparently trying to put the pieces together by these recollections .

In summary - for me it is clever edgy female style story telling but I think Enright will appeal more to women than men. What do you think?

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I think you are very much right that the relationships between children and adults are a central concern of the book. Amongst other things I was struck in reading it by Veronica's sense of the physical presence - one might even say the physical solidity - of children, notably her daughters and little Rowan. And some of the most memorable scenes involve children and adults, notably Ada and her grandchildren.

I am sure you are right that this is a book that would replay re-reading. Some things a bit baffling the first time round, such as the silent vigil of Nugents and Ada in the hotel foyer, would make a lot more sense if one knew something of what was to come. I was irritated when after an interminable scene (or so it seemed) I was told that Ada had not married Nugent but Charlie! Why had I been put throught this?

As you imply the book is not always easy or readily enjoyable reading. This is of course not a criticism if there are good reasons for it. Are those reasons more likely to be obvious to female readers than male? Having been brought up to believe that good literature is universal I have to say that it goes a bit against the grain to admit it, but I do have a suspicion that the minute exploration of family relationships might appeal more t to women than to men. I miss in the book much sense of the society in which the characters exist. Say 'Ireland 1925' to me and I think 'Year 3 of the Free State, two years after the end of the Civil War, country still in chaos, Free Staters in power, De Valera refusing to take his Dail seat', etc. A male reaction, perhaps. Clearly, within the context of this book, it means none of those things to Anne Enright.

John Kennedy

Faye said...

I have hesitated to get back on this because I felt a little unsure about the female sensitivity issues you commented on. Like you - I think well written lit should stand in its own right , however after some reflection I do think there is an emphasis which comes with the territory with some good female writers. What tht emphasis is I feel a bit at a loss to summarise particularly . Whatever it is precisely I think Anne Enright uses it - a type of female sensitivity to family situations involving women I suppose. However I think the writing has to stand on its own merits - with Enright I am fairly sure she is in the lastingly good category but then time will tell.

I am inclined to agree with your thoughts on the complexity of the plot of Gathering which was a bit puzzling at times. I can see also what you mean by the social setting being narrow in focus - I think that was deliberate on the writers part . However for me there was a powerful sense of social and economic change as essential to the plot in this book even though the big historical events were not mentioned.

For the future,
Would you like to make a suggestion or two for some authors we could look at ? I would like to hear your opinions/suggestions.

Faye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Kennedy said...


Sorry not to get back to you sooner. I have been away up in Sydney doing a one week job for my former employer, and did not have all that much free time. I have got hold of a copy of 'The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao' and am about half way through. I wonder if it would qualify as being as much from a male perspective as 'The gathering' is from a female one (although much of it focuses in fact on Oscar's sister and mother). It is full of dark humour and has a rather brash quality to it. Certainly an interesting portrayal of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, who was apparently an archetypal Latin American dictator if there ever was one, and of Dominican Republic people in the US.

Thank you for inviting my suggestions for future books, I am more than happy to go with 'Northanger Abbey' and with 'Father and son' in the coming months. I might have to 'pass' on 'Midnight's children' - at least if an Icelandic librarian friend manages to arrive late in October for a long planned visit, now of course subject to the Icelandic financial crisis, which has limited access to foreign exchange.

I would be intereted to hear what you make of 'Oscar Wao'.

Regards, John Kennedy