This was a difficult book for me to read, and almost an equally difficult review for me to write.
My copy of “The Gathering” by Anne Enright is a Vintage 21 Rainbow edition, which means that from a purely aesthetic perspective it’s a great book. It’s an almost forest green with matching tinted edges, and is set (rather aptly) in Ireland. “The Gathering” was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007, so I think you would be likely to find quite a lot of people who would sing its praises. A lot of people who are not me.
I read this book while I was on a weekend away with some friends of mine down the coast. It was rather a windy, rainy weekend and there quite a lot of people squished together in the small house, rowdy with drinking, so really the conditions for reading a bleak, tormented book like this were perfect.
The story is written from the perspective of Veronica, an Irish mother of two in her late thirties and herself one of twelve children. When her alcoholic brother Liam commits suicide, she and her remaining, and in some cases estranged, siblings rally together for the funeral at their home town of Dublin, where their insipid mother still lives.
While Veronica dutifully goes through the motions of making calls, collecting the body and explaining what happened to her daughters, she attempts to revisit and interpret her family’s past and at the same time struggles to decide what to do with her own future.
There is no question that Enright is a talented writer. Her prose is clever and evocative, and rich (though somewhat blunt) with theme and suggestion. It wasn’t the quality of writing that was the issue for me.
Perhaps it was the approach of the unreliable narrator, and the disjointed blending of past and present. Fellow Booker Prize winner “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie used both of these techniques in an even more glaring way, and maybe I just haven’t quite recovered yet from reading that book last year. The protagonist’s hazy memories, half recollection and half conjecture, are doubtless an effective storytelling strategy to showcase the difficulty of extracting facts from events where all the other witnesses are now dead. However, just like Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, sometimes in trying to make your clever literary point, you sacrifice the flow of the story and, ultimately, your reader’s interest.
Maybe it was the author’s depiction of family that I had difficulty with. Maybe I would be able to relate better had I been one of 12 rather than one of 4. Maybe that’s the point – that nobody could relate, not even the siblings themselves. Not even enough to trust each other with secrets and pain.
Or maybe it was the sheer distaste bordering on disgust with which Enright writes about sex. Her fixation on how grotesque genitals are is a little disturbing, and I found myself wondering (correctly) exactly what she was leading into with this. To be honest, the book reminded me a lot of “Bride Stripped Bare” by Nikki Gemmell, or even “The Almost Moon” by Alice Sebold, with its gripping but ultimately pointless realism.
“The Gathering” is not a bad book, but neither is it a good one. The two questions I ask when determining whether I like a book are:
a) was I entertained? or
b) did I learn something?
My answer for both regarding this book would have to be no. “The Gathering” left me largely unsatisfied and not a little uncomfortable. It was a slog of a read, and did not seem to impart any lessons or messages except to occasionally unveil half-truths about the fictional lives of fictional characters. My struggle with Booker Prize winners continues.