Anne Enright’s The Gathering

I’ve been trying to figure out why I struggled with Anne Enright’s The Gathering; the best I can come up with is that I started off badly with the book, and that bad start was too much to overcome. I did begin to like the book more as I went on, and now that I’ve finished it I have come to admire it, but the experience of reading it wasn’t pleasurable.

The first chapter irritated me with its elusiveness, its refusal to make complete sense, its jumping around from character to character and time period to time period. And the first chapter is not even two pages.

I don’t particularly like saying that in another mood, at another time, I might have liked the book — it feels like a cop-out to me: if I didn’t like the book I should just say I didn’t like it — but in this case it’s probably true. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with this particular narrator and her troubled and troubling voice.

The story is told by Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve children in an Irish family; her older brother Liam has just been found dead and throughout the novel she’s preparing for his funeral — the gathering of the title. Much of the novel, though, is taken up with what appear to be memories and flashbacks to Veronica’s youth and adolescence — her memories of her distant and mentally ailing mother, of sibling fights and violence, and especially of her grandmother Ada, her grandfather Charlie, and their mysterious but ever-present friend Lamb Nugent.

I say these “appear” to be memories and flashbacks because we learn early on that Veronica doesn’t really know much about her family and especially her grandparents, so instead she imagines a history for them, conjuring up, for example, the way her grandparents may have met and how Lamb may have ingratiated himself into their lives. There’s very little, when it comes down to it, that we as readers can say for sure about what the novel presents to us; what we know is what Veronica tells us of her attempts to make sense of her past, but these attempts are so tenuous, we are never on solid footing.

Veronica’s voice is a dark, troubling one; she’s grappling with some shocking memories of witnessing a sexual molestation, although even here she’s uncertain about how and whether it actually happened. She’s going through some marriage troubles herself, spending her days sleeping and her nights writing and driving around the city, feeling in complete isolation from her husband. She’s trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with her and with her recently-dead brother, to think through who is at fault, and even whether such a question is answerable at all. Her rage at the world comes through in almost every page, and I came in time to admire her attempts, floundering though they may be, to understand what has happened to her.

I kind of wish I hadn’t reacted badly to the novel at the beginning, as I came to like the book more as I thought about it further. It’s so direct and unsparing, and beautifully written too. But sometimes I’m not in the mood for beautiful writing, strange as that may sound. Or perhaps I should say that it struck me as self-consciously beautiful writing, and that’s what irritated me, the way the language drew attention to itself. That kind of writing I’m not always in the mood for.

At any rate, our book group discussion is tomorrow, and I’m curious to see how the conversation will go. Certainly don’t let my doubts scare you away from the book if you are at all interested in reading it — you may come to love it. Hobgoblin liked it quite a bit, in fact.

I’ll close with a quotation from an interview Enright gave; I thought it was a very astute way of thinking about James Joyce and his influence on contemporary writers:

Q. Almost every review of an Irish writer’s work makes comparisons to James Joyce. Is it hard to get away from him?

A. I don’t want to get away from him. It’s male writers who have a problem with Joyce; they’re all “in the long shadow of Joyce, and who can step into his shoes?” I don’t want any shoes, thank you very much. Joyce made everything possible; he opened all the doors and windows. Also, I have a very strong theory that he was actually a woman. He wrote endlessly introspective and domestic things, which is the accusation made about women writers – there’s no action and nothing happens. Then you look at “Ulysses” and say, well, he was a girl, that was his secret.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “Anne Enright’s The Gathering

  1. That’s a wonderful quote! I’m not sure I’ll ever read Joyce, but that almost makes me want to. I swear this woman is everywhere. I can’t seem to listen to a podcast without her being interviewed, so I think I really do need to read the book. I tend to blame not liking a book on moods very often as well–sometimes I’m just cranky and it doesn’t matter who the character is–whatever they do is going to annoy me. It’ll be interesting to see how the others in your group got on with the book.

  2. The book may be saying something about unreliable first-person narrators. Otherwise, I thought it was pretentious, incoherent and boring — the sort of novel that drives readers to mystery stories. Whoever chose it for your book group had better arrive at the meeting with fudge brownies and a note from her doctor.

  3. Hmm . . . I may push this book back. I’ve wanted to read it for a while but haven’t been in a huge rush. There’s a lot of other great books out there calling my name!

  4. James Joyce is “a girl” — never thought of him like that. Hmm. Thanks for the quote.

  5. I agree completely with your review. I read The Gathering with equal amounts of irritation and admiration, and arrived at the conclusion that it was too self-conscious to be a book I can warmly recommend. I think the Booker judges were mad – Mister Pip should have won, and proof is that it is now climbing the Amazon bestseller lists. It’s a literary novel with popular appeal, while The Gathering just isn’t and as Don says will drive people to reading mysteries.

  6. I haven’t yet read this, which is unusual given that it was the Booker winner. I have heard so many mixed comments about it that I really ought to read it just to make my own mind up, but when there is so much out there that I do want to read….. This, I suppose, is the perennial reader’s dilemma.

  7. musingsfromthesofa

    I had forgotten this won the Booker. I was wavering before and that tips me right over into definitely not reading it.

  8. I plan on reading the book one of these days–I have a copy. But thanks for the warning that it may be irritating. I will expect that and then maybe I will be surprised. I love the quote about Joyce!

  9. I was so looking forward to this book when I first heard about it but the more I hear from blog friends the more I think I may not enjoy it much. I’ll leave it on my wish list but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read it.

  10. hepzibah

    Hi Dorothy! I haven’t been blogging in awhile — how are you? I miss reading your blog, I am starting up again though :) And I love the last quote you included about Joyce…it is very true I think.

  11. I’ve had “The Gathering” out of the library twice now and both times had to return it before I managed to so much as flip it open. But what Enright has to say about Joyce makes me much keener to read her! Thanks for sharing that.

  12. tony o'brien

    Joyce was a girl….no, I don’t think so. He’s not the first male writer to write about the domestic sphere. I haven’t read The Gathering, but I will… once I get finished [insert list here].

  13. verbivore

    I’d really like to read The Gathering and see what I think of it. I agree that it’s frustrating to get off on the wrong foot with a book and sometimes even more frustrating to put into words why that happened. But sometimes we don’t click with a book. It happens. It would be interesting to see what you think of some of her other fiction – does she have other novels?

  14. I started this book and lost interest. I want to finish it, but just can’t seem to get motivated to do so for many of the reasons you discuss here. Thanks for putting it into words for me. :)

  15. Danielle — if you are at all interested in Joyce, Dubliners is a great place to start … most of the book club members felt mixed about the novel, although Hobgoblin liked it a lot.

    Don — your comment made me laugh because I’ve been preferring mystery stories to contemporary literary fiction lately, although I think it’s a mood and at another time I might have enjoyed Enright’s book more. It did strike me as pretentious, though …

    Maw Books — well, if you are feeling uncertain about it, definitely give something else a try — there ARE so many appealing books out there after all.

    Dark Orpheus — I hadn’t thought of Joyce that way either; I thought the comment was brilliant!

    Charlotte — your word “self-conscious” is exactly right; that’s the element that made me uncomfortable I think. I’m curious about Mister Pip now!

    Ann — the reader’s dilemma indeed. It is tempting sometimes, though, to read something controversial, just to see what you think.

    Musings — I know that feeling of wanting to stay away from prize winners! I like to read them now and then, though, just to think about how in the world some of these books win…

    Stefanie — and maybe you’ll love the book, who knows? I’ll certainly be curious to hear what you thought.

    Iliana — yes, if what people have written doesn’t make you more interested in the book, then it might not be the best choice. Who knows though?? You could be surprised.

    Hepzibah — welcome back and thanks for stopping by! I’ll be over to check out your blog again soon.

    Kate — isn’t that a brilliant insight? I think I might like her ideas about books, even if I’m uncertain about her novel.

    Tony — you’re right that other men have written about domestic topics, although they don’t tend to get associated with the domestic in the way women do. I liked Enright’s quotation because it plays around with our expectations of what men write and what women write.

    Verbivore — she does have other novels and short stories, too, I’m pretty sure. I’m not sure I’d read more of her work, though; I don’t think I want to spend the time on it. But comparison would be a useful exercise! In a world with unlimited reading time I might be tempted :)

    Lisa — I can certainly see how you’d lose interest; my book group talked about how slow the opening half is. It makes sense to me that you would put it aside, since it really wasn’t working for you.

  16. I’ve heard very mixed things about this novel, so I’m not surprised if it didn’t work so well for you, Dorothy. I know just what you mean about beautiful writing. Sometimes, a sad story can be redeemed by the way that it’s told, but sometimes, when a book like this one appears to want to deal with terrible pain, it feels as if dressing it up in oh so elegant writing is doing it a disservice somehow. That it might be more truthful to tell it straight. Beautiful writing isn’t always appropriate somehow, or at least it doesn’t seem so to me.

  17. Janie Raffin

    Such interesting comments; but nobody has mentioned her delicious sense of humour? Her fragmentation (which seems to mirror my understanding of “postmodernism”) sometimes is confusing, which am sure she intended.
    Am only halfway through, but will certainly finnish it.
    Unlike some others, Prize Winners interest me; the judges certainly know more about literature than I do, and at 76 I still have so much to learn.
    Your comments also were extremely helpful; thank you.

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