Anne Enright’s latest novel centres on the death of a sibling in a mammoth sized dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and the impact it has on his sister, the narrator. The narrative has the anticipated self mocking and disillusioned tone. Veronica’s despair is embroidered with guilt and accusation. Her observations and perceptions of all those around her are fiercely honest and sometimes unfair.
However, to understand The Gathering, one must understand Veronica herself. She has just lost her brother, her closest cohort among her eleven siblings. She has just brought his body from Brighton to London, she saw him lapse into alcoholism and perhaps most pivotally, she witnessed what happened to him as an eight year old at their grandmother’s house in the summer of 1968.
One needs to understand Veronica’s mindset and yes, empathise with it, reach to it through reason. Veronica’s loathing for the hidden truths and the blindly accepted notions; her deep and at times ubiquitous search for the truth; her irascible attitude towards her vague mother, her many siblings, her mild mannered husband and Liam himself; and her efforts to conquer the increasing distance between herself and the world – they all contribute to the novel by giving it a kind of a dynamism, which, in my opinion, does, to some extent, weaken its “bleakness”. Indeed, the plot centres on Liam, after all it is he who suffered, but it is Veronica who lives and breathes it, and by doing so, provides us with a valuable insight into her own sadness, and embarks on that path of revelation and ‘blasphemy’. She also tries to unravel the cause of her insecurities and failings.
However, the fact cannot be ignored that keeping up with Veronica is quite a task. The narrative tends to be long and rambling at times. Veronica forgets, confuses and derails, and essentially makes the story laggard, sluggish and ponderous. A prominent newspaper, perhaps rightly to some extent, criticised the novel saying, “Veronica tends to blur the line separating imagination and fact, which is fatal in a narrator.” One does not know what actually took place except for those sharp concentrated focused bits which Veronica considers essential to the story. On the other hand, perhaps these failings are due to the reader’s expectations from the novel. The novel is not, as I have already stressed, about Liam and his death, but Veronica and how she takes it. The death produces a certain change in her which shakes her out of her numbness and makes her start thinking and speaking about the people around her with biting honesty.
The novel is essentially anti- fatalistic. Enright lays emphasis on the fact that whatever happens to us or is perpetrated by us, is not something pre-decided but solely dependent on our obsessions, mistakes, ignorance and the choices that we make. Enright also implies that one might make a decision thinking it is a trivial matter, but that decision can have colossal effects on someone else’s future. The focus of this particular stream of thought seems to be Veronica’s grandmother, Ada, whose character Enright seems to have developed the most, perhaps even more than Veronica’s. In Veronica’s speculations and experiences, one can detect a strong presence of Ada, whether it be through analogies or bitter reflections on how Ada’s choices influenced everything that happened. Yet, Enright manages to instill in the reader a sense of sympathy for Ada. Veronica is most abrasive towards Ada and still it is her actions and decisions whichh Veronica seems to understand the most. She recreates in her mind, the circumstances in which Ada must have made her decisions, she travels to those places and she imagines her bearing the consequences of her actions.
The novel can be slow, and Veronica as a narrator can be at times incoherent, given the shock that she has suffered. Yet she makes up for it by her acidic insights into the lives of her closest relations and her strange affinity towards the bitter nature of truth. Indeed, one of the most poignant aspects of the novel seems to be that truth, however ugly it may be, cannot be escaped; one must embrace it with its entire stench. This is what Veronica tries to do and derides other people for trying to cover it with vague mannerisms and temporary self developed amnesia.
[Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eqqman/126227421/]