When we delve into the past we’ll often find anger somewhere inside it, as being heavily implied in Anne Enright’s The Gathering. We can rarely make peace with our past, holding it responsible for what happens to us in the present. It might need forever for a particular event to ooze out of our bad memory and lead us to the lane directing our actions, but it will one day finally happen, and we’ll never like it. Enright, through the story of an Irish family torn apart by secrets and the choices they make, deftly presents to readers this idea of dealing with the past and all the heartache accompanying it.
The sudden death of her brother Liam means that Veronica has to break the news to her somewhat mentally unstable mother, a bitter fact she has to carry on her shoulders along with the realization that she’s the only one among her many siblings reliable enough to do it. But if you think dealing with the task and bringing Liam’s body back to Ireland are not hard enough for her, then you haven’t seen all. She has also to discover the shocking, heart-shattering fact behind her beloved brother’s death: that he’s actually committed suicide. It immediately brings back deep-buried, saddening memories she has almost forgotten, memories involving her grandparents and their landlord, Lamb Nugent. Of course, these memories are not ones which are so real as Veronica seems only to imagine everything. But there are some about her and her brother, about the life they live in their grandparents’ house that wouldn’t spring to her mind if Liam didn’t drown himself. These vaguely-recalled, real recollections then break open their family’s secrets: their uncle’s mental illness, the constant absence of their grandfather, the mysterious, continuous presence of Lamb Nugent in their grandparents’ house, the death of their brother Stevie when he is still a baby, Liam’s drinking habit, and the horrible incident that might be the reason why Liam decides to die.
Through The Gathering, Anne Enright uncovers the unavoidable nature of having and being in a family. It seems like she peels every single layer of that nature and force the core of it on the reader so they’ll see the fact: that no family is a normal family. It’s no exaggeration to say that all families are dysfunctional, in their own ways. More or less, Veronica has made a correct statement that being part of a family is the most tormenting way of living. And having secrets is what’s most tormenting about it. People have secrets, family keep secrets. But to what extent does it affect their condition? One secret of the past can torture someone for their entire life and lead them to an action their own relatives won’t understand. Once again, Enright chooses the right means to deliver this whole idea of dysfunctionality. Throughout the narrative, she appears to say that not every member of our family can understand us, completely or not. Sometimes we just keep ourselves too much to ourselves, sometimes our family are just too much busy with themselves to get involved in our lives. And when something terrible happens, it’s already too late for them to try and understand the reason. There’s even no point in revealing the secret anymore.
The Gathering has a very strong narrative and the plot is ever so carefully, neatly organized that the reader can feel its cover peel off little by little and reveal everything within. At the beginning, it feels a bit hard to get into the introductory chapters, as they feel more imaginary than real and are difficult to catch up. Thankfully, as the next ones unfold, readers can eventually sense the power of the story Enright has woven, especially the voice of Veronica as the narrator. Through her, Enright breaks open one by one what becomes the secrets of the family she describes, along with all the emotions bottled up between her lines: sadness, anger, revenge, regret, and hatred Veronica has for her family, which, to her, only makes her life more miserable than already is. The language Enright uses to write all of those feels too much difficult to stomach at times, rendering our “burden” while reading the whole book doubled. However, it also somehow manages to drag us into a whirlpool that is Veronica’s mind, and lets us see what flares up within. The core idea, which is the breakdown of a family, might not be as exceptional as anyone would think, but Enright has a brilliant way to develop it into a heart-tuggingly engaging tale, forcing us to recognize its beauty and excellence.
The Gathering by Anne Enright is not a masterpiece, in my opinion—despite its winning the Man Booker Prize—but it is truly a huge work of contemporary literature. It seeps through our mind and gets us thinking: are our family just fine? Do we really love them? What influence do they have on us? This book can be thought of as the antithesis of romance, posing a question we wouldn’t dare to ask ourselves: is there really something called “living happily ever after”? After marrying the one we love, will everything end just there?