The Gathering (2007) is Anne Enright's fourth, and most critically acclaimed, novel. Awarded the Booker Prize the year it was published, Enright's meditation on memory melds past and present to tell the story of a large Irish family and the suicidal death of one of its members. The author's writing style, by turns experimental, surreal, and earthy, has been compared with that of Don DeLillo, John Banville, and Patrick McCabe, among others. The exploration of domestic relationships, especially between mothers and daughters, is a recurrent theme in her work, and one that has been favorably compared with the novels of Anne Tyler.
Veronica Hegarty, the narrator and central character of The Gathering, suffers a breakdown after her brother Liam fills his pockets with stones and walks into the sea. His death prompts her to plumb three generations of family history in search of the truth of a tragic event from their childhood. The old secrets, memories, and betrayals that become dislodged in her search of the past have a profound effect on Veronica's relationship with her husband and children in the present. Though filled with death, disappointment, possible sexual abuse, and mental instability, The Gathering is a lyrical—and often humorous—work that captures the best and worst parts of being a member of a large and complicated family.
Anne Enright was born on October 11, 1962, in Dublin, Ireland, to Donal and Cora Enright. Both parents were civil servants. After growing up in the suburbs of Dublin, Enright received a scholarship to attend Pearson College in Canada from 1979 to 1981. She completed her degree in modern English and philosophy at Trinity College in Dublin from 1981 to 1985. During that time, Enright was writing for Irish television and theater and acting with the Dublin theater groups Rough Magic Theatre and The Abbey. After graduating from Trinity College, she received a scholarship to the University of East Anglia where she completed a master of arts in creative writing under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. In 1989, Enright's first short story was published in the Faber & Faber, Ltd. anthology series First Fictions. This led to Enright obtaining an agent and an advance on a short story collection.
The collection The Portable Virgin was published in 1991 and won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in the same year. After publishing the collection, Enright left her television career to become a full-time writer. In 1993 she married actor and director Martin Murphy. In 1995, Enright's first novel, The Wig My Father Wore, was published. The novel has since been translated into French, German, Dutch, and Russian. In 1997, Enright contributed to the group novel Finbar's Hotel. The publication of her solo novel What Are You Like? followed in 2000. The latter novel was awarded the Encore Prize of the Society of Authors and was short-listed for the Kerry Ingredients Listowel Writer's Week Prize and the Whitbread Award. On June 29, 2000, Enright gave birth to her first child, Rachel Charis Murphy. In 2003, Enright's The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch was published. She followed that novel with the publication of The Gathering in November 2007. The book won the prestigious Booker Prize, Britain's best-known literary award.
The Gathering begins with the narrator stating “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother's house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.” This prepares the reader to accept the possible untruth of the story that follows as well as the reason for its being written. These beginning sentences warn of the unreliability of memory, which becomes a central theme of the novel. The reader is introduced to Liam, the narrator's brother, and Rebecca and Emily, the narrator's daughters. The chapter ends with the narrator explaining that she writes at night, while her family sleeps.
Much of Chapter 2 is taken up with a description of the narrator's mother and the narrator's conflicted feelings for the woman. Described as “forgetfulness itself,” Mammy does not remember that her daughter's name is Veronica. This enrages Veronica. The reader learns that Mammy had twelve children and seven miscarriages, all which left “holes in her head.” The narrator, Veronica, cannot forgive her mother these births and miscarriages. Despite her rage, Veronica still calls Mammy, “My sweetheart mother. My ageless girl.” Veronica tells Mammy that Liam's body was found in Brighton, England, and Mammy hits her. The reader learns that Veronica, thirty-nine, was the one who loved Liam most.
To tell Liam's story, Veronica begins with the night “Lambert Nugent first saw my grandmother Ada Merriman in a hotel foyer in 1925.” Veronica imagines what passes between Lambert and Ada that night when he was twenty-three and she was just nineteen. Ada is described as a “fantastic woman” with perfect and contagious manners and Lambert as having “the dour narcissism of the ordinary man.” Veronica imagines a rush of romantic feeling passing between them, but then confides that Ada and Lambert do not marry; Ada marries Lambert's friend Charlie Spillane instead. Despite this fact, Lambert “never left her.”
The chapter opens in present time. Veronica contacts her many living siblings from Mammy's house to tell them the bad news about Liam. Her sister Bea arrives to care for Mammy, and Veronica drives to the airport. She must go to England to deal with Liam's body. On the way, she begins bawling and thinking about love and loss.
The chapter begins with a narrative flashback. Veronica writes about a time when her grandfather, Charlie Spillane, goes to pick up Lambert from a hotel. Charlie makes Ada laugh and, in the process, according to Veronica, changes his future and her past. The chapter ends by hinting that Lambert and his sister Lizzy may have had an incestuous relationship.
Back to present day, the chapter begins with Veronica describing her life since Liam died. The reader learns that hers is an upper-middle-class existence, that she has not been able to sleep beside her husband Tom since a month or so after Liam died, and that she stays up all night, every night, wandering the rooms of her lovely home and writing. She fears her daughters do not really want her. The reader learns that Tom “moves money around” and makes quite a lot of it; Liam was a hospital porter in the Hampstead Royal Free and Veronica used to be a journalist who wrote about shopping.
Veronica is on a train on her way to Brighton to collect Liam's body. Her sister Bea calls to say that Mammy wants Liam's body brought back to her house for a wake. Veronica describes her father, a man with beautiful manners, who died of a heart attack in 1986. She reflects that none of the Hegartys were mean (meaning stingy), but she is aware of her own discomfort about paying for Liam's funeral arrangements and coffin. Remembering a moment from her childhood makes her think her grandmother must have spoiled her and her siblings.
Veronica explains that she, Liam, and Kitty were sent to stay with Ada in Broadstone. She goes on to describe how the years between the children being born and her mother's miscarriages made her mother incapable of caring for her youngest living children. They also “turned her into the creature I later knew.” She describes life with Ada and Charlie and the time she, Liam, and Kitty were caught sneaking into the bus station and running through one of the empty double deckers. Remembering that she and her siblings ducked into a church to light candles and give thanks for getting away from the bus conductor reminds Veronica of the time in Venice, many years later, when she ducked into a church to get away from a pervert.
Still on the train to Brighton, Veronica closes her eyes and remembers Liam surprising her in the hospital when Rebecca was born. She tries to “put a timetable” on her brother's drinking and realizes that “Drink was not his problem, but it did become his problem, eventually.” She wonders if Liam has diabetes and thinks that if he would just get his blood checked “we could do something about this.” Then she realizes he is dead.
The chapter begins in flashback with Veronica imagining Ada and Charlie in bed one year after they met. Veronica provides a detailed description of her grandfather in life followed by her memory of his funeral in 1968. This leads to a description of Liam in death, how Veronica knew he was dead when she finally got to see his body in Brighton.
Veronica recalls seeing a reflection of herself the day before Liam died and thinking, “So, I am happy. That's nice to know.” She describes her girls and talks about needing to keep them happy. When they ask, she tells the story of how she and their father met. She does not tell them that Tom was living with another woman at the time. Veronica says he loves his children, but feels they are “in his way” He works very hard, pushes himself very hard, but feels he is a failure. Veronica has not touched him since the night of Liam's wake.
The Brighton undertaker, Azrael, tells Veronica that due to a paperwork problem her family will have to wait at least ten days for Liam's corpse. Veronica picks out a casket. She loves this undertaker and the ease he has with her. At lunchtime, Veronica walks around Brighton Station and sees the world through Liam's eyes. She remembers the first time she and Liam took the ferry. They were on their way to London to work for the summer. It was the end of his second and her first year of college. She calls to check on her daughters and husband and finishes the conversation by hanging up on Tom. A description of her college love affair with Michael Weiss follows.
When she was in college, Veronica decided Ada had been a prostitute. She describes Ada's funeral and how, afterward, Mr. Hegarty sent his girls up to Ada's bedroom with the instructions, “Take what you like.” The experience made Veronica realize, “I did not know how to want what she had left behind. I wanted out of there, that was all.” She admits that during their affair she told Michael Weiss things that year she has not told anyone else since.
Veronica recognizes that, no matter how hard Ada's life was, most of the time she did not cry but just got on with it. As soon as Michael Weiss admitted to loving the idea of Ada as a prostitute, Veronica changed her mind about the theory. She recounts the fights she had with her father and how they affected her exams, and she admits how hurt she is that he is dead. The chapter ends with Veronica still feeling mortified by Michael Weiss's delight in her family.
The chapter focuses on a rubber bathing cap of Ada's. Veronica may have eaten it, though it is more plausible to believe Kitty did. Maybe Liam tried smothering Veronica with it, but likely he and Veronica used it to smother Kitty. Her mistaken memory of the object and how it figured in her childhood causes Veronica to look for items like it in thrift shops, “thinking that if I could hold the hat in my hands…then I would know which was which and who was who out of Kitty, and Liam, and me.” She goes on to describe Ada's garage and how Ada called Lambert Nugent “Nolly May.”
Veronica reimagines Easter Sunday of 1925. Charlie Spillane drives Lambert Nugent and Ada and Ada's friend Ellen to the races. The reader learns why Ada called Nugent “Nolly May.” Though Nugent and Ada seem to belong together, Charlie ends up winning Ada in the end.
Veronica remembers Ada packing a basket and taking her, Liam, and Kitty to the seaside on the train. Actually, Ada wraps a few sandwiches and puts them in a string bag, and takes the children to an insane asylum called St. Ita's. After the train trip and a long walk, they arrive at the insane asylum, but only Ada goes in.
Veronica remembers that Liam became frightened at night around the time of the St. Ita's visit. Kitty was supposed to sleep with Veronica, but Liam “would come across in the darkness and worm his way between us, elbowing her out and hissing at her to move into the bed he had left.” Veronica remembers these as happy nights because the two of them would talk all night. Their talking lasted through their teens when they wrote letters to each other. Through the years they talked about anything and everything, in the dark, in bars, in houses and restaurants. She describes the hovel she shared with Liam and several roommates the summer she worked in London saving for her last year of college. When she decides to move out she recalls thinking, “I really thought that there must be a path—and Liam had wandered off it, and I wasn't going out there to look for him, not this time.”
Veronica describes Liam and talks about how she left him several times. She explains, “The problem with Liam was never something big. The problem with Liam was always a hundred small things.” She remembers going to St. Dympna's and her teacher, Sister Benedict, and cutting herself in college, and Michael Weiss being disgusted by it. Veronica does not go to Mass now, but says her daughter Rebecca “is going through a pious phase, probably to thwart me.”
In an imagined scene between Ada and Nugent, Ada attempts to comfort Nugent because things are bad for him. In her imagined scene, Veronica cannot decide whether the two make love or remain chaste, then decides, in the end, to let them remain chaste.
Veronica lays out facts about how Liam died. These facts make Veronica feel that she should, “put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams.” She decides that it is time to say what happened to Liam in their grandmother's house. What follows is her memory of finding Nugent sexually abusing Liam in the good room of her grandmother's house.
Veronica describes how she began driving at night while her family slept. One morning, Tom misses work to find out where she has been. When he leaves for work, she lies in Emily's bed and thinks, “I want to finish the job of making her, because when she is fully made she will be strong.”
Veronica meets Kitty in a pub before they fly to Dublin together. Kitty cries all the way home on the flight and Veronica does not try and console her. When they land, Veronica drives the long road leading to St. Ita's asylum and discovers the mass grave that is St. Ita's cemetery.
Veronica describes she and Liam as teenagers. She remembers their friends and drinking together and Liam breaking her girlfriends' hearts. Around this time, Mr. Hegarty had to rescue Liam from jail for a mysterious crime, an event that changed their relationship forever. As an adult, Liam blamed Veronica for her nice house, nice daughters, and golf-loving husband. She admits, “My brother…was unkind to every single person who tried to love him.” The chapter ends with her feeling sorry that she did not recognize what was going on between Liam and Nugent while it was happening.
In Chapter 26, Veronica and Emily talk about Liam's drowning. In Chapter 27, Tom comes home from work a month after the funeral and Veronica verbally attacks him. He tries to leave, but Veronica storms out of the house ahead of him. She goes to a bar. She realizes that, up until Liam's death, she did not mind her life being the way it was.
Veronica and the rest of the Hegarty family wait for British authorities to file their paperwork and release Liam's body. During those ten days, Veronica sits with Bea, Kitty, and their mother on daily visits to the family home. She admits that she and Liam never bought “the whole Hegarty poor Mammy thing,” which could explain why her mother does not like her better.
One day, while waiting for Liam's body to arrive, Veronica finds herself crying on the escalator in a shop. She realizes she is crying because there is nothing in the shop she cannot buy. Liam, as a ghost, is described as old-fashioned, though in life he was probably more cosmopolitan than the rest of the Hegartys.
Veronica, Tom, and their children arrive at Mammy's to view Liam's body. All Veronica's living siblings, with the exception of Alice, are assembled. Veronica speaks to her Uncle Val, her father's brother, who says of Liam, “He was a great lad. I think he was my favourite.” Veronica realizes her sister Ita has been secretly drinking gin all day and is getting powerfully drunk. Wanting to do the same, Veronica persuades Ita to look around for a bottle for the crowd. Before long old resentments surface and the siblings begin sniping at one another. Mammy retires and Veronica finds a green shoe-box filled with old photographs, letters, receipts, and a series of rent books starting in 1937 that trace the rent history of Ada and Charlie's house in Broadstone.
After drinking too much and making a fuss in the front room, Veronica is given a pill and sent home in a cab. She wanders her quiet house, then has sex with her husband “for the last time.” Tom talks about how everything will get better, and then apologizes. Even though she does not know what he is apologizing for, Veronica tells him, “It's all right.” In Chapter 32, Veronica describes a forgotten memory, a picture of herself at eight in the good room of Ada's house in Broadstone. She is holding Lambert Nugent's penis in her hand and Ada is standing in the doorway. Veronica asserts, “This is the moment for blame…. This is the moment when we realize that it was Ada's fault all along.” She does not know for sure that Lambert Nugent sexually abused her brother, and she does not think he abused her, too. She says, “In short, I know nothing else about Lambert Nugent; who he was and how Ada met him; what he did, or did not do.”
These three short chapters reveal Veronica's thoughts on spiritual belief, a memory she has of Ada sewing on the sofa in the good room of her house, and what she finds in the letters and rent books taken from Mammy's the night of Liam's wake. Chapter 35 begins, “The rent books only start in 1939—which makes me imagine, briefly, that Charlie owned the house once, but lost it to Nugent on a horse.” After reading the letters, Veronica is led to think that Charlie, Nugent, and Ada shared “a relationship of sudden pique and petty cruelty.” In Chapter 36, Veronica drives to St. Ita's and stands where “more than five thousand people were buried.” At six a. m. she decides to go home, but drives to the airport and gets on a plane instead.
The chapter opens at Liam's funeral where Veronica meets Sarah, Liam's old girlfriend, and Sarah and Liam's son, Rowan. After the funeral the family meets, and falls in love with, Rowan.
In Chapter 38, Veronica describes the day Ada hears Lambert Nugent has died. In the final chapter, Veronica checks in to a hotel at Gatwick airport, sleeps eight hours, dreams of Michael Weiss, then wakes and calls home. Outside the hotel, still inside the airport, she fantasizes about choosing a random destination and flying away, but acknowledges that she will go nowhere but home. While waiting in line for a ticket she prepares for the return to her own life.
Azrael is the young British undertaker who assists Veronica with Liam's funeral arrangements. Veronica claims to love him because he does not pretend or judge. She appreciates his ease with her and thinks that one day one of her daughters will marry someone like him.
Veronica's teacher at St. Dympna's School. She is described as a “black-eyed, passionate woman.” Though Sister Benedict was strict, Veronica grew quite fond of her.
Uncle Brendan was Ada's son and Mammy's brother. He is described as being “too good for this world.” When Liam, Veronica, and Kitty were children, Ada took them to visit their Uncle Brendan at St. Ita's, an insane asylum. When he died he was likely buried in the mass grave that comprised St. Ita's cemetery.
A friend of Ada's, Frank Duff was “the actual head of the actual Legion of Mary.” Before becoming head of the religious organization in 1967, Duff organized missions that removed young prostitutes from brothels, bought off their madams, and took them on retreats.
Emily is Veronica's youngest daughter. She is six years old and described as a Daddy's girl and a cat. She has the Hegarty-blue eyes, black hair, and is a bit cold, a bit hopeless. She is Veronica's rival.
Fidelma was one of Veronica's two childhood friends and would drop by her house on the way to school when the girls were fifteen years old. Veronica's brother Liam seduced Fidelma and then broke her heart.
See Ada Merriman
Alice Hegarty is one of Veronica's younger sisters. When the family gathers for Liam's wake, Alice is the only living sibling not in attendance. She is described as “mysterious.”
Bea Hegarty is one of Veronica's older sisters and is described as “a good little girl,” “beautiful” and “drifting.” When the family gathers at Liam's wake, Bea picks a fight with her sister Kitty. Bea has a tendency to be smug and pious.
Ernest Hegarty is the oldest of the Hegarty sons and a lapsed Catholic priest living in Peru. He is described as a “thoughtful, flat-handed sort of man.” Though he admits to Veronica that he decided no longer to be a priest, he does not announce the fact to the Church. Veronica hates his falsity.
Ita Hegarty is one of Veronica's older sisters. When the siblings gather at Mammy's house for Liam's wake, Ita gets drunk on gin disguised as water. She has returned to Dublin from her home in the United States.
Ivor Hegarty is one of the twins, the youngest two living Hegarty siblings. At Liam's wake, Ivor's siblings accuse him of being gay and an idiot when he admits he has been thinking of “buying up in Mayo.” Kitty explodes and says their uncle could live for a month on the price of Ivor's jacket.
Jem Hegarty is Ivor Hegarty's twin brother. The twins are described as being “always delightful,” but Jem, the youngest, is best loved. When Veronica needs someone to tell the family about Rowan, she chooses Jem for the job, saying, “I need a child to do this, or a grown-up child.”
Kitty Hegarty is one of Veronica's little sisters. She, along with Liam and Veronica, was sent to live with Ada when Mammy was not well enough to care for them. After Liam is found dead, Kitty and Veronica work with the British police to collect dental records and other vital physical information pertaining to his death. Kitty weeps all the way home on the plane and disapproves of Veronica's behavior at Liam's wake.
Liam Hegarty was born just eleven months earlier than Veronica and is the sibling she loved the most. As a child, he loved birds and the bones of dead animals. He grew up to be a suicidal alcoholic who ended his life by wading into the sea near Brighton, England. When Mammy was unable to care for them, Liam, Veronica, and Kitty were sent to live with their grandmother, Ada. During this time, Lambert Nugent may have sexually abused the boy. At fifteen, Liam was “unexpectedly beautiful.” At sixteen, he was “beautiful and bad,” a “princeling,” and a “heartbreaker.” That year, his father had to bail Liam out of jail for a crime neither ever shared with the rest of the family. Mr. Hegarty gave up on Liam after that and treated his son with “a new, and complete, contempt.” Liam's restlessness made him unfit for the adult world. He hated arbitrarily and kept his girlfriends from his family. Liam spent most of his working life as a hospital porter in the Hampstead Royal Free, which he enjoyed, and made only sporadic visits home to see Veronica. Three years before he killed himself, he fathered a child named Rowan with Sarah.
“Mammy,” Maureen Hegarty, is mother of Veronica and her eleven siblings. In addition to giving birth to twelve live babies, Mammy suffered seven miscarriages. She does not remember Veronica's name and is described as being vague, hazy, and “too much loved.” Her many pregnancies and births have left her damaged. During the gap in her reproductive years, what Veronica thinks of as the “dead children years,” Mammy has a sort of nervous breakdown which leads to Liam, Veronica, and Kitty being sent to live with their grandmother, Ada Merriman. Her final bout of “nerves” comes after the birth of the twins, her youngest two children. “Don't tell Mammy” was a familiar phrase used in the Hegarty house, as Mammy could not handle bad news of any kind, no matter the severity. Veronica does not remember what Mammy was like before her first breakdown, before she became, in Veronica's words, “this piece of benign human meat, sitting in a room.” Although she had already lost a number of children—her eldest, Midge, died at forty-two and Stevie died as a baby—she is undone by Liam's suicide.
Midge Hegarty was the firstborn of the Hegarty siblings. She died of pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-two.
Mossie Hegarty is one of Veronica's older brothers. As a child, he hit and bullied the other children. As an adult, he is tall and handsome, a professional that Veronica's husband thinks is the only normal Hegarty. His has a gentle wife and “three too-perfect children.” He appears happy and successful.
Mr. Hegarty is the patriarch of the Hegarty family. He was married to Maureen, or Mammy, and fathered Midge, Bea, Ernest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice, Ivor, and Jem. He loved Maureen, but “did not love her enough to leave her alone.” In public he had beautiful manners and worked as a lecturer in the local teacher training college. At home, however, he hit his children frequently, though he claimed it was never personal. He went to church every Sunday, but he was not pious. He died of a heart attack in 1986.
Stevie Hegarty, one of Veronica's older brothers, died as a child. He is described as “a little angel in heaven.”
Veronica Hegarty is the narrator and central character of the story. She is thirty-nine years old, wife of Tom, and mother of Rebecca, eight, and Emily, six. Before she had her daughters she was a journalist. Now she takes care of the house and the children, living an upper-middle-class existence. She owns a nice home, drives a nice car, and can afford to buy just about anything she wants. This does not make her happy. Liam's suicide causes Veronica to experience a breakdown of sorts because Liam was the sibling she loved best. After Liam's funeral, she is unable to sleep at night. Instead, she wanders the rooms of her expansive home and writes. By writing about his death, Veronica hopes to pin down the truth of an incident that happened between Liam and Lambert Nugent when Liam was just a child. She traces the beginnings of this possible incident to an imaginary night in 1925 when Ada Merriman meets Lambert Nugent and Charlie Spillane in a hotel lobby. Her literary musings make up a significant part of the novel's narrative. When she is not writing or wandering through her house, she drinks and takes long drives while her family sleeps. Her marriage to Tom is unstable.
Jackie was Veronica's best friend when she was fifteen years old. Veronica was hurt when Jackie became interested in Liam.
Ada Merriman is Veronica's maternal grandmother. Her parents died when she was very young, so Veronica considers her an orphan. When Mammy could not take care of Liam, Veronica, and Kitty, the three children were sent to live with Ada. In the winter of 1968, something happened in her house. Veronica's late-night musings are an attempt to unravel the truth about that event and Ada's part in it. Veronica begins Ada's story in 1925, the night she met her future husband, Charlie Spillane, and Charlie's friend, Lambert Nugent. At the time, Ada was just nineteen years old, a servant, and beautiful. She is described as being a “fantastic woman.” Ada was quite charming and had perfect manners. Later, when Veronica and her siblings were sent to live with her, Ada worked as a seamstress for the theater. Actors and actresses frequently dropped by the house for fittings. Veronica imagines that Ada was once a prostitute, though she has no real proof. Ada and Lambert Nugent share a mysterious relationship.
Lambert Nugent was Charlie Spillane's best friend. He figured largely in Ada and Charlie's life and in the narrative Veronica weaves about her family history. He may have sexually abused Liam in the winter of 1968, but Veronica has no real proof. Nugent most likely loved Ada, though he had a wife and children of his own. At Liam's wake, Veronica finds a series of old letters from Nugent to Charlie and Ada that reveal that theirs was a relationship “of sudden pique and petty cruelty.” Because he acted as Charlie and Ada's landlord for many years, Veronica wonders if Charlie may have once owned his house and lost it to Nugent on a bet. Ada's nickname for Nugent was “Nolly May.”
Rebecca is Veronica's eldest daughter. She is eight years old, “dippy,” and kind. She looks like Veronica and always takes her mother's side.
Rowan is the three-year-old son of Liam and Sarah. Veronica meets Rowan for the first time at Liam's funeral. Rowan, who is a surprise to the whole family, looks like Liam and has the Hegarty-blue eyes.
Sarah is Rowan's mother and Liam's former girlfriend. Many years prior to his death, she and Liam stayed with Veronica and Tom while their own house was being renovated. Sarah arrives at Liam's funeral with Rowan, whom she introduces to the family for the first time.
Charlie Spillane was Ada's husband and Veronica's grandfather. Veronica begins Charlie's story in 1925, the night he met his future wife. In her narrative, Charlie is driving a beautiful Bull-nose Morris. When he meets Ada he is “raffish with drink, hearty with promises broken and appointments missed.” He is tall and proudly bald, always on his way somewhere, “seldom without his coat.” He is charming, but his charm is pointless. No one believed a word he said. Charlie and Ada enjoyed a loving, flirtatious marriage. Veronica believes he died in February 1968.
Veronica had a crush on Tanner, Willow's older brother, when she was fifteen.
Tom is Veronica's husband. He is Jesuit-taught, “which explains it all, he says.” Veronica describes him as completely selfish “in the poshest possible way.” He pushes himself hard and is rarely satisfied. He loves his children, but feels they are in his way. Veronica thinks he believes this about her, too, but knows he is wrong. Tom feels like a failure. He was living with another woman when he met Veronica. Six months later the woman left him, and he and Veronica bought a house.
Uncle Val is Veronica's father's brother. He is a bachelor farmer in his seventies. Liam used to enjoy visiting his uncle at his farm in Maherbeg. At Liam' wake, Val tells Veronica that Liam was his favorite, calling him a “great lad.” Veronica realizes that only she and Val ever tried to save Liam.
Michael Weiss was Veronica's lover for three years during college. He came to Dublin from Brooklyn, New York, to obtain a master of arts in Irish studies. His father was a semi-famous artist; Michael wrote poems and philosophized. Seventeen years later, Veronica thinks she still loves him.
When Liam was sixteen, Willow was his best friend. Willow's older brother Tanner was the object of Veronica's; affections when she was fifteen.
Family is the predominant theme in The Gathering. The title itself refers to the coming together of several generations of one large Irish family, both literally and figuratively, when one of its members commits suicide. Central to the story are Veronica and Liam Hegarty (the seventh and eighth of twelve children), their mother, and their grandparents, Ada and Charlie. Enright uses these characters to illustrate the blessed and cursed bonds of family and how time and its passage affect them. When Liam dies, Veronica suffers a breakdown of sorts, despite the conflicted feelings she reveals about her brother. She expresses frustration over her mother's grief, saying, “It occurs to me that we have got something wrong here, because I am the one who has lost something that can not be replaced. She has plenty more.”
Liam's importance in Veronica's life is proven when she distances herself from her own family—her husband and two young daughters—after Liam dies. His absence leaves her inconsolable and without purpose. Unhinged, she cannot sleep and takes to wandering the rooms of her house and writing imaginary scenarios that may have played out between her grandparents long before she and Liam were born. Her dependence on family history as some sort of guide toward truth reveals itself to be an act of desperation and frustration. Looking back does not satisfy Veronica's desire for truth. The secret she feels she must reveal remains a mystery. For these reasons and more, Veronica, at Liam's funeral, thinks, “I don't know what wound we are showing to them all, apart from the wound of family. Because, just at this moment, I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.”
The Catholic religion plays a significant role in Enright's novel. Countless references to the Church, mass, priests, nuns, saints, prayers, and religious holidays are scattered throughout the novel. For example, the development of the “love triangle” between Lambert Nugent, Ada Merriman, and Charlie Spillane that starts in 1925 occurs during Lent, a period of self-denial and repentance in the Christian faith. Enright writes:
Nugent has given up rashers, sausages and all kinds of offal for the duration, also strong drink. His body has been cleansed by the workings of his soul—so the smell that rises from under his shirt has something of the spring air in it, a whiff of early morning soap, the quiet ming of a day's toil.
This description gives readers the sense of the sexual tension felt by Lambert. He is trying to purify his soul, but spring stirs strong feelings within his body. Veronica imagines that Ada chooses Charlie over Lambert on Easter, which, in Christian tradition, marks the end of Lent and commemorates the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ. That Easter of 1925 likewise marks a personal transformation for Ada: she begins her life with Charlie and ends the possibility of a life with Lambert. Enright writes, “It is Easter Monday, a still-tender time. It is the day Christ says, ‘Noli me tangere,’ to the woman in the garden.” Noli me tangere is Latin for “do not touch me,” a phrase reported by the apostle John to be Christ's words to Mary Magdelene upon his ressurection. Ada's nickname for Lamb, “Nolly May,” is based directly on this phrase. The nickname brings powerful religious symbolism to Ada's decision to choose Charlie. Lambert may not touch her. Whatever her past sins, on that Easter she imagines herself purified and reborn.
While Enright surrounds the young Ada with symbols of and references to Christ reborn and triumphant, she pairs Veronica with Christ's suffering during his crucifixion and death. According to Christian tradition, Christ dies on the cross because of his love of humankind. Veronica is no longer a practicing Catholic, but she still strongly associates suffering with love. In a clear reference to the crucifixion of Christ, she says, “Belief needs something terrible to make it work, I find—blood, nails, a bit of anguish. So I catch my anguish. I look at Liam's coffin and try to believe in love.” Throughout the novel, Enright shows Veronica suffering because of various family relationships. Veronica struggles to separate her suffering from her love. In the end, she moves from suffering to rebirth as she realizes she has a chance to end the cycle of suffering in her family through the love she shares with her children.
The Gathering relies heavily on flashback, a literary device used to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. Veronica, the narrator, says that before she can tell her brother's story she must start “long before he was born.” The past events she conjures—some imaginary, some real—appear in the story the way memories often do, at random and in no logical order. The past and present merge to create a family history that is ever evolving, given the fact that Veronica involves her grandparents, her parents, and her children in Liam's story. Using the literary device of flashback allows Veronica to take the reader to 1925, or 1968, put them in a hotel lobby or her grandmother's house and see what she sees in her mind's eye.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research Irish history around the year 1925. What significant events took place during this time? How did these events affect the future of Ireland and its government? Write a paper detailing your findings, including any significant leaders and their impact on contemporary Ireland.
- Imagine growing up in a family as large as Veronica Hegarty's. Make a list of the pros and cons of having so many siblings. Would you enjoy growing up in a large family? Why or why not? If you did grow up in a large family, write about your experience, including the way children growing up in smaller families viewed your upbringing.
- Think about your grandparents and the way they met. If you do not know the details, including the time or location of their meeting, make them up. Write a short story that recreates the first time your grandparents met one another. If you never knew your grandparents, imagine who they might have been and how they came to know one another.
- Research the figure of St. Ita. What was her background? What miracles are attributed to her? Why is she considered to be among the most loved of all the female Irish saints? Write a paper detailing your findings, including any connections you find between references to St. Ita's Hospital in The Gathering and the real life of St. Ita.
First Person Point of View
The Gathering is narrated by the principle character, Veronica Hegarty. Her first person account of her family's history and the events leading up to and beyond her brother's suicide are framed by her thoughts, feeling, opinions, and prejudices. This is an intentional stylistic technique employed by an author whose work is largely about the unreliability of memory and how point of view affects history. By giving Veronica, a woman in the throes of a minor breakdown, the responsibility of exploring the secrets of her family's past, Enright makes a point about the elusive and subjective nature of both memory and family relationships.
The Ireland of Anne Enright's upbringing was very different than the Ireland that evolved in the years preceding the publication of The Gathering. Beginning in the late 1960s, “The Troubles”—violence and terrorist acts between Republicans and Unionists in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—plagued the island for over thirty years. Although Northern Ireland saw the majority of the violence and bloodshed, the Republic of Ireland suffered its share of ill effects.
The year 1998 brought hope for a lasting solution to The Troubles. The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, was a landmark settlement that called for Protestants to share political power with the minority Catholics of Northern Ireland. The agreement also gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland. After numerous stops and starts, a new Northern Ireland government was formed on December 2, 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, though, the government was suspended due to the reluctance of Sinn Fein (the primary Republican political party) to disarm the Irish Republican Army, the military wing of the party. Finally, in 2005, the IRA renounced armed struggle and the country looked forward to lasting peace. In 2007, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Reverend Ian Paisley, swore to uphold the rule of law as first minister of Northern Ireland. In the same ceremony, opposition party Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, was sworn in as deputy first minister. Paisley remarked of the momentous occasion, “I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, when hate will no longer rule.”
Once wracked by high unemployment, high inflation, slow growth, and a burdensome public debt, over the past fifteen years the Republic of Ireland has undergone an extraordinary economic transformation. Now known as the “Celtic Tiger,” the country is enjoying low unemployment and inflation, a low tax burden, and a
miniscule public debt. Once an agriculture-based economy, Ireland is now recognized for its vibrant business economy and growing high-tech industry.
The economic boom has seriously impacted Ireland's contemporary culture. A rapid rise in immigration over the past decade reversed the island nation's historically high emigration rates. Between 1996 and 2006, Ireland exploded with newcomers from over 150 different countries. Immigrants have fueled economic boom as well as social upheaval, but Ireland has taken proactive steps to ensure a smooth transition. By allowing noncitizens to participate in local politics and join the police force, the country has made integration a top priority.
Liesl Schillinger writes of The Gathering in the September 30, 2007, New York Times Book Review, “Reckless intelligence, savage humor, slow revelation, no consolation: Anne Enright's fiction is jet dark—but how it glitters.” Her succinct assessment of Enright's Man Booker Prize—winning novel gets to the heart of what makes the author and her work stand out. Bravery and strength fuel her work, giving it a quality that appeals and repels at the same time. Schillinger writes, “With her curiously spare yet baroque style and her merciless eye, Anne Enright has beguiled critics for nearly two decades.”
In her August 2007 Booklist review, Joanne Wilkinson writes,
The blessing and the curse of family bonds have been addressed by some of our best writers, perhaps never so movingly as by William Kennedy in his Albany cycle of novels. Now Irish novelist Enright, whose intense lyrical style recalls Kennedy's, gives full voice to another tale of familial agony: Veronica's grief in the wake of her wayward brother Liam's suicide.
Despite its dark themes, Enright manages never to burden the reader. Schillinger writes of Enright's ability to keep the tone engaging: “Veronica's reminiscences have an incantatory power that makes them not depressing but enthralling—as evocative and unanswerable as the laments of the woman ‘wailing for her demon-lover’ in ‘Kubla Khan,’ except that Veronica wails for her demon-brother.”
Focusing more on Enright's Irish heritage and its influence on the novel, Kristin Ewins, in her May 11, 2007, Times Literary Supplement review writes,
Despite some thematic similarities with Edna O'Brien—both perceptive of peculiarly Irish families and sex—Enright is more interestingly placed among experimental, if otherwise diverse, Irish writers such as John Banville and Patrick McCabe, stretching the limits of a more conventional Irish realism engaged with social issues through self-conscious narrative techniques, intricate plotting, and mystical overtones.
In this essay, freelance writer Ann Guidry explores how class affects Veronica Hegarty and her domestic relationships.
In a little over a generation, Ireland has evolved from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its most successful. Once wracked by high unemployment, high inflation, slow growth, and a towering public debt, the country has undergone an extraordinary economic transformation over the past fifteen years. Ireland now enjoys low unemployment and inflation, a low tax burden, and a surprisingly small public debt. As it has shifted from an agriculture-based to a growing high-tech economy, the island nation has begun to enjoy a reputation for dynamism and change. Although it does not play an obvious or predominant role in the narrative of Anne Enright's The Gathering, Ireland's soaring economy does have an impact on its central character, Veronica Hegarty, her domestic relationships, and how she grieves for her favorite recently deceased brother.
Veronica Hegarty's middle-class lifestyle is referred to continuously throughout the novel. Her economic situation affords her generous amounts of time to attend to the details of bringing her brother Liam's body home to Dublin from England, arrange the funeral, care for her mother, and grieve extensively. She is able to provide her daughters with many of the niceties she was never able to enjoy as a child, and she herself does not want for anything. But her wealth is a burden to her, too. She believes it put a wedge between her and Liam and causes her to feel a certain level of guilt. Her economic standing informs her character, despite the amount of time she spends summoning the past and living—if only in her mind—the life of a poor and wanting child from a large and dysfunctional family.
Veronica's economic standing is revealed early in the narrative. Her middle-class status, we learn, determines that she must be the one to tell her mother that Liam's body has been found. “That this duty should devolve to me, for a start—because I am the careful one, of course. I have a car, an accommodating phone bill. I have daughters who are not obliged to fight over who is wearing the other one's knickers in the morning before they go to school. So I am the one who has to drive over to Mammy's and ring the doorbell and put myself in a convenient hitting position on the other side of her kitchen table.” Veronica's class—hard won because she is careful and has managed to rise above the poverty of her youth—dictates that she break the news of her brother's death to her mother, even though she is not close to the woman and may not be the best person for the task. The next reference to Veronica's class and how it affects her handling of Liam's affairs reveals her conflicted feelings over it. “There is the coffin to consider, of course, and for some reason I already know that I will go for the limed oak—a decision that is up to me, because I am the one who loved him most. And how much will that cost? I think as I put down the phone.” Veronica feels both proud that she can pay for her brother's funeral arrangements and somewhat resentful of the effects her money has on her family and herself. Her money makes her decision to select an expensive oak coffin almost breezy, a fact she notices about herself. Her money also sets her somewhat apart from both her family and her past.
Veronica's childhood home and the house she and her husband currently own could not be more different. Despite her negative feelings about the house she grew up in, she refers to it as “the place where my dreams still happen.” She describes it as
all extension and no house. Even the cubbyhole beside the kitchen door has another door at the back of it, so you have to battle your way through coats and hoovers to get into the downstairs loo. You could not sell the place, I sometimes think, except as a site. Level it and start again.
Her adult home, on the other hand, is spacious, well designed, and tastefully decorated. During the night, while her family sleeps, she wanders the house, moving from one large room to the next. Walking through the generously apportioned spaces both calms and unnerves her. “We bought eight years ago, in 1990; a new five-bedroom detached. It's all a bit Tudor-red-brick-with-Queen Anne-overtones, though there is, thank God, no portico and inside I have it in oatmeal, cream, sandstone, slate.” The last four words will appear again throughout the novel, like a kind of snide comment on her newfound sophistication. The phrase is, for Veronica, a distillation of her resentment toward all that appears neutral, emotionless, cool, and accomplished. She has worked her whole life to get to this point, yet she is obviously uncomfortable with her success. Despite its beauty, her home does not provide the comfort she seeks. She seems instead to want a hint of her old, less “tasteful” surroundings:
I wanted the biggest floral I could find for the bay window at the front—can you imagine it? By the time I had the stuff sourced, I had already moved on to plain Roman blinds and now the garden is properly grown in I want…nothing. I spend my time looking at things and wishing them gone, clearing objects away.
Exercising her freedom to choose between objects until she finally owns the perfect one fills a void in her life. Once she no longer has the need to shop, decide, and buy things, she realizes how little she actually cares for them and how much she wants them gone. This struggle is not limited to her house or her immediate family. It affects Veronica's sense of self and feeds into her grief over Liam, her past, and her upbringing.
Veronica seems amused by the manner in which her husband earns his living. “Tom moves money around, electronically. Every time he does this, a tiny bit sticks to him. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Quite a lot of it, in the long run.” Because she is financially stable and no longer works herself (she had been a journalist), she has the freedom to be glib about her husband's income. This freedom affords her the luxury of feeling distant from the work that went into building her economic status, so much so that she partially internalizes what she sees as Liam's disapproval of her material comfort.
I know I sound bitter…but my brother blamed me for my nice house, with the nice white paint on the walls, and the nice daughters in their bedrooms of nice lilac and nicer pink. He blamed me for my golf-loving husband…. He treated me like I was selling out on something, though on what I do not know—because Liam did not allow dreams either, of course.
She goes on to explain that “after a lifetime of spreading the hurt around, he managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty. Now why is that?” But Veronica's guilt is only partly influenced by Liam's attitude. Her impoverished upbringing coupled with the dissatisfaction she feels for her wealth seem to be larger root causes.
Veronica's guilt turns to shame when, a few chapters later, she goes into a shop and finds herself crying on the elevator. “And the fact that makes me cry is that there is nothing here I cannot buy. I can buy bedlinen, or I can buy a bed.” Her affluence leaves her feeling unmoored and ashamed.
And suddenly I want to throw the nine Brabantia storage jars into the air and shout, or go over to the till and empty my bag onto the counter, and say, What about the starving people in Africa, with their bellies out and their eyes running with pus? because I can buy anything at all in this shop. My brother has just died and I can buy anything at all.
That she connects her brother's death with her wealth is telling. It is as if she realizes and is distraught because of the fact that her money cannot save her. It cannot change her past or improve her marriage or bring her brother back from the dead. All the things that she can now buy are merely things, objects that serve as obstacles to any sense of peace and relaxation she may seek.
Because Veronica is unable to honestly express this conflict, her mind wanders back to her college boyfriend. She thinks Michael would be better able to manage “the middle-class dream” because he is from America, a wealthy country where no stigma is attached to improving one's socioeconomic status (quite the opposite, in fact). Veronica, however, appears to be the product of a sudden Irish identity crises. The whole country has a dramatic economic surge, and in living standards for many have improved to a degree that could hardly have been imagined forty years ago. The guilt and shame Veronica suffers certainly have personal roots, but may also be part of a larger Irish identity crisis.
Finally, at the end of the book, after a fight with Tom, Veronica's wealth allows her to spontaneously catch a flight to England and spend the night in a hotel in Gatwick airport.
It has a spa. I saw this when I checked in. I went back to the shops in the South Terminal and bought myself some togs. And I bought socks and pants there, too, and a bag to put them all in—quite a nice bag, very unfussy, in that bumpy, hammered leather.
With Liam's funeral behind her, stationed briefly in a sort of unthreatening purgatory, Veronica seems less affected by her affluence. In fact, now it serves her well. She is able to escape: to fly away, sleep, dream, and wake without being reminded of the things that have her feeling so trapped. She does so without guilt or shame. She does not comment on the extravagance of her purchases; she merely indulges in them and appreciates them. Her money, in this case, is neutral, a means to an end with no significance in itself. Once refreshed and renewed, Veronica puts on her new pants, throws her old ones away, asserting “I discard this other life, and leave the hotel behind.” Back in the airport, she toys with the idea of choosing a random destination and flying to Nice or Djerba or Barcelona—again, options available to her because of her money—but she really knows she is “going nowhere, but home.” She may not have entirely resolved her guilt, her grief, or her feelings of inadequacy, but she has, at least momentarily, come to terms with her class.
Source: Ann Guidry, Critical Essay on The Gathering, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following review, Schwall examines The Gathering and its place in Enright's oeuvre.
Enright's The Gathering brings not only twelve siblings together (throughout the book, biblical overtones abound) but also many sociopolitical, moral, and religious issues. In its play with literal and metaphorical meanings, this proves another vintage Enright novel, like The Wig My Father Wore, which started with an
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Portable Virgin (1991) is Enright's first collection of short stories. Noted for its humor and postmodern sensibility, the book won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature the year of its publication.
- The Wig My Father Wore (1995) is Enright's first novel. Written between 1993 and 1995, after the author left her television career, the book uses cinematic techniques to weave multiple plots and perspectives into the narrative. The Wig My Father Wore received international critical acclaim and has been translated into French, German, Dutch, and Russian.
- What Are You Like? (2000) is Enright's second novel. It examines themes of loss, exile, motherhood, Catholicism, and the Irish diaspora in the United States and England. This tale of twins separated at birth was praised for the complexity of its themes and ambitious prose style. It received the Encore Prize of the Society of Authors and was short-listed for the Kerry Ingredients Listowel Writer's Week Prize and the Whitbread Award.
- The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2003) is Enright's third novel. In this book, the author envisions the life of the Irishwoman who became the Eva Peron of Paraguay. Set in the Paraguay of the 1850s, it tells the story of Eliza Lynch, who met the eldest son of the country's dictator in Paris, then followed him home after becoming pregnant with his child.
original kind of “angel in the house” and ended with a protagonist who does not cry over spilt milk. One of the refreshing aspects of Enright's writing is that though her action is firmly situated in Ireland, the Irish situation is being looked at awry, as Zizek would put it. The figure of Lamb Nugent may be married to Kathleen and have four kids “in his grim way”, but the old symbolism is not pressed much further. The novel focuses on basic, universal questions, like the ways in which the memory works, and generates meditations on the origin of evil and on possible modes of an afterlife.
With such issues to deal with it is no wonder that the protagonist is not only a writer, but one called Veronica, like the woman who caught the “vera icon”, the true image of God's incarnation. Can any other name set a writer a more demanding task? Yet Enright's narrator proves to be “a phenomenal heroine”, in the sense that, in her urge to come to terms with her favourite brother's suicide, Veronica shirks no horrors, neither physical nor epistemological ones. Liam's sad life and sorry death suddenly shock Veronica into an awareness that until now she had lived her life “in inverted commas”, that is, she had led a stereotypical middle-class existence, “a lifetime of false intensities” which is summed up in the litany “Oatmeal, cream, sandstone, slate”, repeated three times throughout the book. Instead of concentrating on the real-estate boom in Dublin the narrator now tries to pick her way through the moments of hatred, desire, and love she feels for her family, looking alternately for a logical explanation of Liam's life, a psychological one, and a religious one.
As the body must be transferred from England (Liam ended his dark life in Brighton), waked and buried, administrative and ritual concerns allow the narrator to try out a causal explanation for this suicide. This is not easy: all Veronica can go by is “an uncertain event” she feels “roaring inside me”. This urgent but blurred feeling is connected with the eight-year-old narrator's memory of coming upon her brother Liam while he is being interfered with by Lamb Nugent, the landlord of her grandmother, Ada. The adult expression of the childhood impression is interesting: Liam holding Nugent's member forms a “bridge of flesh between the man and boy”. This rather poetic image of child abuse epitomizes the narrator's preoccupation: how is life passed on in families and between generations? That the “bridging function” is demonized is all in character with the narrator's sympathy for Liam who turned out a messer. So, Veronica thinks this event “is crucial” “to my brother's life”; “it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of the X”. Yet this same causality is dismissed immediately: “In a way, it explains too much”. At the wake Veronica accuses their mother who was so absent-minded that she was absent altogether:“you were not there to comfort or protect him, and that interference was enough to send him on a path that ends in the box downstairs”. But again any logical link between child neglect and Liam's suicide is found wanting: “Because a mother's love is God's greatest joke…who is to say what is the first and what is the final cause?”.
Indeed it turns out that not so much logical but psychological factors yield a more plausible story, where the three principles of repetition, imitation, and interaction prove to be predominant. First, the narrator suggests that Nugent's lack of distance may be due to a pattern in his own family, as he played around with his sister Lizzie. This lack of “the right distance”, Veronica assumes, may well have been a problem in most families, which is underscored by the fact that their school was named after St Dympna who had to escape from her own father. Second, Veronica's writing leads her to believe that she, too, has been traumatized by some sexual assault, which reminds her of two other instances where men thrust themselves at her. This brings us to the third principle, that of interaction between past and present, which Freud calls “deferred action”. Veronica herself gives the perfect definition of this phenomenon:“You know everything at eight, but it is hidden from you, sealed up, in a way you have to cut yourself open to find.” Indeed, as the eight-year-old witnessed a “relation” which had no relation to the rest of her world, she registered it without understanding it. The impact of this “registration”, however, is deferred until an event in the present lights the fuse, which is exactly what happens to Veronica: “Over the next twenty years…I never would have made that shift on my own—if I hadn't been listening to the radio,…and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people's homes. It went on slap-bang in front of me and still I did not realise it. And for this, I am very sorry too.”
But interactions are not just at work between past and present, but also between victim and victimizer: “I could also say that Liam must have wanted him too. Or wanted something” and between observed and observer. The fact that history never stops “sliding around in my head” makes the narrator a participator in the events, so that she can hear Nugent accusing her of phantasizing herself into misery: “Now look at what you've got”. The “interactional” principle gives a further twist to the name “Veronica” when we learn that she is not only “attracted to people who suffer”, but she also makes people suffer, when she shocks her lover by her self-mutilation or when she flees her own family. But maybe most essential is the ongoing interaction between Veronica and Liam, which informs the narrator's “unreliability”. That Veronica intermittently identifies with Liam's hatred of their mother and of Mossie becomes apparent in the way she describes them when she is still in shock about Liam's death. It is only during the rituals of his wake that they appear as thoughtful, balanced people. Another clue to Veronica's bias is her own observation that “When Liam got into detail, I knew he was lying, also that he was starting to convince himself”. This throws an interesting light on her extra-vivid descriptions of the sexual innuendo or plain action between Ada and Nugent, and of the Liam-Nugent scene, of which the narrator herself admits that this “may be a false memory”. But whereas “false” details convincingly depict the narrator, there are some (very few) passages which remain unconvincing. One occurs when she insinuates that her grandmother and her landlord use biblical pet names: “as they sometimes said, Nolly May Tangerine—from the “Do not touch me” of the Bible”.
Psychology is not a question of truth but of an underlying consistency. This, however, does not suffice for a writer like Veronica, so she brings in the religious dimension. References to the Old and New Testaments abound, but significantly only in confused form: the apocryphal Veronica is mixed up with both the bleeding woman whose touching of Jesus healed her, and with Mary Magdalene, whom Christ forbade to touch him. Indeed, Veronica is all about touching upon reality, and thereby producing a touching image. That which happens in and under the skin is something both “Vee” and Liam had in common: “the place Liam worked best was under your skin”. Only, while Liam's work is merely physical or detrimental, Veronica seems to find three vital factors of Christian belief anchored in her body: the question of original sin, of reconciliation, and of resurrection. Let us start with the act of forgiving. As this supersedes both causal and psychological thinking, forgiving is very hard for a matter-of-fact person like Veronica, so in one of her litanies she insists “I do not forgive.” The fact that she repeats this seven times is again a reference challenging the Bible's order to forgive seven times. Yet in the end she does forgive, even the family's “Urmutter”, Ada: “But I do not blame her. And I don't know why that is.” This is where original sin comes in: Ada is pictured as bringing life into the world and thereby death and all other mysteries and imperfections. (I wonder why Ada was made into an orphan; as a foundling she would have made an even more powerful symbol?) Just so, the parents' love act which creates both life and chaos has something ambiguous and utterly ironical: “My father…had sex…not for the pleasure of it, so much as to make it all stop”. The italicized point nicely echoes Yeats's “Consolation”: “But where the crime's committed / The crime can be forgot.” But falling into human imperfection is exactly what the narrator will do herself at the end, and the literal meaning gets another metaphorical twist: “Gatwick airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening…I have been falling into my own life…And I am about to hit it now.” Not only has Veronica now understood the unreliable, shifting nature of her family icons, but she believes she may incarnate them, as she is expecting a baby, which is one of many hints at a new understanding of resurrection.
After the (psycho)logical and the religious aspect it is only proper to end on the aesthetic aspect of Enright's novel. She writes in a dense, accurate, shocking, and humorous style. She has antennae to catch the almostness Rilke specialized in, and combines this with the suggestive epistemology of John Banville, the witty distance of A. L. Kennedy, the physicality of Jeannette Winterson, and the incisiveness of Sylvia Plath. One could almost say that her prose is more anatomy than analysis, which is underscored by the many partes pro toto the narrator somehow shares with the narratee, Liam, who used to “put cancerous lumps into bags and carried severed limbs down to the incinerator.” Directness of experience is enhanced by onomatopoeia, which, surprisingly, often differs between languages. When baby Stevie has little angel sex, they all “make little noises when they kiss. It sounds just like their name. Putti. Putti. Putti.” I have clearly no angel ears, as I do not recognize the sound. But I do recognize the angelic Stephen from Enright's first novel, who strongly contrasts with Veronica's demonic brother. Between her first and her last novel, Enright is widening her range, and building up a consistent oeuvre that is absolutely outstanding.
Source: Hedwig Schwall, “Anne Enright, The Gathering,” in Irish University Review: A journal of Irish Studies, Autumn/Winter 2007, p. 594.
Ewins, Kristin, “Anne Enright, The Gathering,” in The Times Literary Supplement, May 11, 2007, from http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article2677412.ece
“Ireland steps up as immigration leader,” in The Christian Science Monitor, September 5, 2007, from www.csmonitor.com/2007/0905/p06s02-woeu.html?page=2
Moloney, Caitriona, “Liam's Wake,” in Twenty-first Century British and Irish Novelists, edited by Michael R. Molino, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 267, 2003.
“Northern Ireland—A time of peace. Improbable and exhilarating, self-government is back,” in The Economist, May 10, 2007, from www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=9164973
Schillinger, Liesl, “Anne Enright,” in The New York Times Book Review, September 30, 2007, p. 19.
Wilkinson, Joanne, “The Gathering,” in Booklist, 103.22, August 2007, p. 35.
Banville, John, The Sea, Vintage, 2006.
The Sea, winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize, deals with the themes of loss, love, childhood, and memory. Enright's style has often been compared to Banville's.
Bolger, Dermot, Finbar's Hotel, Harcourt, 1999.
Enright contributed a story to this serial novel written by such Irish literary luminaries as Roddy Doyle, Joseph O'Connor, and Colm Tóibín
Enright, Anne, Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, Jonathan Cape, 2004.
Making Babies is Enright's humorous and intimate nonfiction record of her two children's early lives.
Killeen, Richard, A Short History of Ireland, Gill and Macmillan, 2006.
With over 150 full-color photographs, paintings, and drawings, this introduction to Irish history is visually pleasing, accessible, and readable.