Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Gathering

Family history, which is for the most part oral tradition, relies on memory and is therefore changeable. The Gathering by Anne Enright (fiction, 2007 Man Booker Prize winner, 261 pages) explores the relationship between memory and truth, and the possibility of multiple truths. Not in the way of Peggy Seltzer, stealing others' lives whole cloth and making them your own, but in the way that fragments of memory are stitched together, with outside details sometimes pulled in to make them whole.

As Veronica Hegarty brings her brother's body back to Ireland and her family gathers for the wake, she recounts to us her family's history and the past secrets about her brother Liam that she has kept to herself since childhood, secrets that may have tormented Liam to his eventual suicide. Veronica is an unreliable narrator--she as much as tells us so. Early on, she tells the story of her grandmother Ada's first meeting with Lambert Nugent, a meeting that is to echo throughout the generations of the Hegartys, mesmerizing the reader with the story and its possible outcomes, and then pulling out the rug with her admission that she imagined it all. The reader is left with decisions as to what is real and what is not, and whether, in the end, the reality or unreality of the stories matter.

Veronica and Liam's family is huge (12 children), with the requisite alcoholics and priests, and they tend to blend together. I was particularly intrigued by the mysterious Alice, the only surviving sibling never to arrive onstage. But the story is primarily concerned with the tight duo of Veronica and Liam, with the next stairstep, Kitty, tagging close behind, and what may or may not have happened to Liam, what Veronica may or may not have seen, when the three children stayed with Ada one year while Veronica was eight and Liam was nine.

Veronica is an angry woman, and The Gathering is one long, searing howl of rage and pain. Enright's brilliant, incisive writing for the most part overcomes the familiar territory over which this very Irish novel treads, although some of her creative touches, such as her references to bodies, living and dead, as meat, can wear thin with repetition. The book is well done, but draining. And it leaves the reader with more questions than it answers. This is a book that will stay with readers for a long time, and can lead to examinations of our own personal family histories.

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