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Anne Enright: The Gathering

Veronica Hegarty is thirty-nine years old. Her brother has just killed himself by drowning off the coast of Brighton and her marriage is falling apart. Her story is nominally about trying to explain why Liam, her brother, did kill himself and what led him to suicide. However, it is also about trying to sort her own life out and explain it and also to examine the life of her fairly dysfunctional family. Veronica is the seventh of twelve children. All big families are the same, she says. There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. Liam is both the drunk and the one who was interfered with as a child though, to be fair to Liam, he is not the only one in the family who drinks. However, there are other dysfunctional members of the family. Mossie is psychotic. Kitty sleeps with lots of men, and she loves each of them and they are all married and no one knows about Alice. Ernest the priest is no longer a priest or rather, he has renounced the priesthood but wants to tell no-one but his immediate family, not even his bishop. But it all starts with Ada.

We first meet Ada Merriman in a hotel foyer in 1925. Lambert Nugent sees her and thinks that she is beautiful. Other is a wonderful scene, early in the book, where Lambert (known subsequently as Lamb) observes Ada and, eventually, she observes him. This observation goes on for some time and we readers are obviously convinced that this is the beginning of a romance till Enright hits us with a key sentence. She did not marry Nugent, you will be relieved to hear. She married his friend Charlie Spillane. Ada and Charlie are the grandparents of Veronica and her siblings. Lamb is and remains Charlie’s best friend. He marries and has four children but it is not a happy marriage and he remains attracted to Ada. Charlie and Ada remain in love with one another, despite the fact that they have their problems. Both have affairs, Ada with Lamb, Charlie with all and sundry. Their son ends up in an institution. And it is Lamb whom Veronica will find with Liam’s hand on his penis, the source of all Liam’s troubles, Veronica believes. Liam is just eleven months older than Veronica and she considers him her quasi-twin. Liam and Veronica, for reasons which are not entirely clear to them, spend a couple of summers with Ada and Charlie and enjoy themselves very much, despite the fact that Charlie is always out and about. Ada, however, is very loving and caring.

Veronica is married to Tom and they have two daughters. Their relationship has been a bit rocky for sometime. She suspects him of infidelity, though without any evidence for this. Things get worse after Liam’s death, starting with Veronica feeling much less interested in sex. Veronica had had various affairs before, particularly with Michael Weiss, a Jewish man who was easy-going, perhaps too easy-going. Her relationship with her brother had been very close when they were young, as they were the two closest in age, apart from the twins. However, Liam had always been a bit like his grandfather, wayward and somewhat irresponsible. It is Liam who stands up to their father and swears at him, Liam who goes off for a periods and then turns up unannounced, Liam who is arrested by the police, though no-one seems to know why. They go off to England live together in Stoke Newington for a while. However, while Veronica does well at her studies, Liam does badly in his exams and does a series of odd jobs, living in cheap accommodation. Liam gradually becomes an alcoholic, unable to fit in with life. He has numerous affairs but no steady girlfriend. Gradually Veronica sees him less and less, not least because Liam clearly resents Veronica’s happy, successful marriage.

At the wake and funeral, eight of the nine surviving children and their mother appear. Of the twelve, Stevie died as a baby, Midge, mother of six, has already died as, of course, has Liam. Alice, the mysterious woman that all large families have to have, does not turn up. It is a time for Veronica to assess her life, her marriage, her family, which she does. But, in assessing Liam, she knows where the blame lies. Enright won The Man Booker Prize in 2007 for this novel, much to everyone’s surprise, beating out the favoured, Mr. Pip. Both are excellent works but I think that I would have shared the judges’ view and given it to this book. Not only does it skillfully tell of a family’s secrets and memories and problems, it does it in a very literary way. Enright tends to use an impressionistic technique, jumping backwards and forwards through time, giving her impressions, which may or may not be reliable (as she admits several times), not sticking it chronology but to how Veronica thinks of the issues, both past and present. It works very well as a masterful story and as a portrait of a family.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Jonathan Cape