Monday, January 7, 2008
2007 Winner, "The Gathering": Elizabeth's Review
The Gathering is an elegy, and it moves in the slow, measured tones of a funeral dirge, or the sad pace of the pages of an old photo album turned by someone hampered by memory. It is the story of Veronica, the middle child of a large family, whose beloved brother Liam has filled his pockets with stones and walked off Brighton Beach and into the sea. Despite its foreshadowings of shocking revelations, it is mostly a book of feeling rather than plot, one that takes us into the depths of depression and loss and grief. It is, in the end, a book about Veronica rather than about Liam, or even about the Hegartys family relations. It is about drowning, but about Veronica drowning in loss rather than Liam drowning in the Irish sea.
The book supposedly won the Man Booker prize for its language, which is clear and spare and—in the terms used by almost every reviewer, “unflinching.” What is innovative about this book, though, is not its language but its pacing. Rather than being plot driven, a rush of prose that carries us down a flowing river, it is more like a series of still photographs. Enright gives us a scene, one with the emotional tone of a grainy black-and-white picture. Her early scenes of the meeting of Veronica’s grandmother, Ada, and Lamb Nugent, are the paradigm for the rest of the novel: she describes them sitting silently in a room, giving us minute details about the pose of Ada’s hands and the clasp of her bracelet, the way her dress folds around her as she sits. You can feel the clock ticking in the stillness of the room. And then Enright moves on, not to another plot point (this is not a novel where something happens), but to another photograph, this time of the headrest of the front seat of Veronica’s Saab pitched forward over the steering wheel, or to the elastic straps of Ada’s corset, or to the garage in the back of Ada’s house where Lamb Nugent, now the landlord, works on his jalopies. We are shown grief as a slide show, with image after image clicking quietly down into the viewer as we sit in silence trying to make sense of it all.
The shocking revelation in the middle of the book, the one that is supposed to make Liam’s suicide legible, is not so shocking in this day and age. In one flash of light, we see Liam being “interfered with,” as Enright puts it in her Irish brogue, by Lamb Nugent. It’s hardly giving away the crucial point to reveal this in a review, since the idea of child sexual abuse is by now so hackneyed in film and literature to be immediately transparent the moment a “shocking revelation” is hinted at. Veronica tells us that this recaptured memory makes Liam’s life and death all make sense, but for us, it never does—how Liam dealt with what happened, what sense he made of it, and how it shaped his life’s course never come clear. The scene where Veronica sees the abuse marred the book for me, creating a cheap emotional out that both spoiled the gravity of the book and dishonored the true emotional intensity of what happens to children who are damaged in this way.
In the end, The Gathering was a beautiful portrait of grief and its movement through both the soul and the family. I was left, though, wondering why it was Booker-worthy. With its terrible Angela’s Ashes sort of cliches about Irish life, and the ultimate cliche of child sexual abuse, it seemed to rely on gimmicks to hold up the insupportable weight of its sadness.