Monday, August 24, 2009

The Gathering - A Brilliant Little Novel

Review of The Gathering by Anne Enright

I remember a commentator once remarking that Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was a play where “nothing happens…twice.” Anne Enright’s marvellous novel is similar because the plot is not very complicated at all and really nothing happens in this novel in a way. Let me explain by firstly offering a prosaic summary. After some pages the narrator introduces herself to us as Veronica Hegarty. She is the one who is responsible for gathering all the clan together - there are some twelve siblings in her family - for the funeral and wake of her brother Liam. She had been the closest in age and sympathy to Liam and his death has really shaken her up badly. The novel recounts how she sets about contacting her siblings, breaking the news to her mother and coming to terms with her own ageing and mortality. It also recounts the state of her relationship with her husband and how she copes with being a mother. All the while she is flitting back and forth through three generations of her family. In the end she does manage to get her head together and to achieve some little peace of mind. Now that’s a rather boring prosaic summary.

I have deliberately used the word “prosaic” above because this novel reads almost like a poem. The writing is superb, deep and intense. There is simply not a word to spare. There is absolutely no way one could prune this novel back because every single word is apt and inevitable. In short, there is absolutely no padding in it, and moreover, it rings true to our experience. To use a very much overloaded and perhaps overused description I would call this work an existential one. No sooner do we start the novel than we are drawn into it: we begin to feel with, think with, live with, experience with the narrator. She draws us as it were into her head and into her heart. We become one with her in her quest - her quest for personal identity, her quest to make some sense of what this life is all about. In short this novel is a tour de force and it ranges over the whole gamut of human experiences and emotions connected therewith: from birth to childhood, to adolescence and the burgeoning of sexual desire, to marriage, having children, the ups and downs of the married life, the ageing of the body and to death and dying.


This is an intense and stimulating novel. It is one which disturbs and lifts the spirit in turns. You will take this novel in your hands at your own peril because it simply shakes you to the roots of your being and to the very foundations of your personality. But, my goodness, the challenge is worth it because you will leave this novel down all the better for having grappled for a while with the demons from your past. In short, you will be strengthened to attempt to face them head-on and you know you will emerge therefrom a stronger character indeed.

Now this is no self-help book in novel form - far from it. In fact, it is a disturbing little book which persists in upturning all those mossy old stones of the past to reveal worms that wriggle underneath. However, the real meat of this novel, like all good novels lies in its beauty and depth and precision of language. Anne Enright is a lyrical writer. She writes with a searing beauty and honesty of style. She carries us away with it, in fact. I suppose this is really what makes a good writer - the ability to express things really well. Anne Enright has much of value to tell us - as indeed do most reflective and intelligent people, but Anne has the writer’s gift of expressing it so much better than the rest of us. In short she has a lot of wisdom to share with us and she shares it with us in a style of writing which is superb. In Enright’s hands content and style rhyme and she captures us with the resultant beauty of it all.

I suppose another thing that moved me about this novel as does all good literature move me, namely the sheer honesty of the whole enterprise of good writing. Good writing is never style for style sake. Good writing is never fake or phoney. It is always honest and true. When style weaves into such truth and honesty then the result is often a little masterpiece, and that’s what we have here in The Gathering. It is no wonder that this novel won the Man Booker Prize for 2007.

The start of any novel is always worth reflecting on. Different authors have different ways of opening their works. Good authors capture our interest from the very beginning. The same is true of Anne Enright. I simply love this opening. It is mysterious and oblique and oh so honest. We can believe this narrator because she is not all that sure of things really. When the novel began several hundred years ago now the narrator was often omniscient and so when I studied English Literature this was called the All-Knowing Narrator. Our narrator is confused and searching. In short, she is an honest pilgrim as it were She is a searcher and explorer of life and experiences as we all are. I’ll finish this review by giving you a taste of the author’s style by quoting the very opening paragraph, and perhaps you will want to buy it:

“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. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me - this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.” (The Gathering, Anne Enright, Vintage 2008, 1)

Above, my own picture of the cover of the novel.

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