August 16, 2007

Anne Enright: The Gathering

Posted in Enright Anne at 5:03 pm by John Self

16 October 2007: The Gathering has won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007

Anne Enright’s The Gathering had enthusiastic reviews when it was published earlier this year, and I picked it up in the shops and put it down again more than once. I finally picked it up permanently when it was longlisted last week for the Booker Prize. Enright has an ear for a memorable title – The Portable Virgin, The Wig My Father Wore – so at first sight The Gathering seems a little banal. But it is a family story, and as we go through the pages and remember that happiness writes white, and that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (“I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive”), we realise that we might well add Storm to the end of the title.

“I saw a man with tertiary syphilis at Mass, once,” is how the narrator, Veronica Hegarty, opens one chapter, and it sums up the sexuality and Irishness of The Gathering neatly. Hegarty is one of a large clan, and is obsessed with sex and penises in particular, her self-loathing in the sexual act matched only by her loathing for her wealthy husband Tom (“Tom moves money around, electronically. Every time he does this, a tiny bit sticks to him. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Quite a lot of it, in the long run”).

When I sleep with Tom … what he wants, what my husband has always wanted, and the thing I will not give him, is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred.

And if your response to that is, who can blame him?, then she’s ahead of you already (“Christ I wish I wasn’t such a hard bitch sometimes”), or if it’s to doubt the plausibility of it – or of other pronouncements like “Children don’t feel pain” – she’s covered that one too, when as early as page one, line two, she warns us that “I’m not sure if it did really happen” and later, “I doubt all this can be strictly true.” What she’s talking about here is the central question of the book: what happened to her nearest brother Liam when he was nine, that caused his recent suicide as an alcoholic at the age of 40?

With those warnings in mind, my take on it is that what she tells us did happen to Liam – the storm breaks around the middle of the book – is that it really happened to her. Otherwise her rage and hatred make for little sense and even less sympathy. Nonetheless there is bitter wit aplenty (“the cloth of his trousers wrinkles and sags around a crotch that is a mystery no one is interested in any more”) and frequently beautiful descriptions, such as this imagined scene of Dublin in the time of her grandparents (“the bookie and the whore”), in 1925:

Nugent cocks an ear after the escaping motor. There is a pause as the engine fades, and then the silence starts to spread. It seeps into the foyer of the Belvedere; the distant rustle of streets turning over from day into evening, as the night deepens and the drinking begins – elsewhere. As women shush their babies, and men ease their feet out of their boots, and girls who have been working all evening wash themselves in distant rooms and check a scrap of mirror, before going out to work again.

But those coming to The Gathering looking for a straight story will be disappointed – and probably maddened. Enright’s Veronica goes around the houses in telling her tale, from reinventing a love triangle two generations ago, to flipping through the album of her own childhood and then bringing us back to the present day. In doing so the powerful and sometimes precious language gets under the skin and works on you when you are not expecting it.

As a result I liked The Gathering much more on completion than I thought I would at any time while reading it. With the additional attention its Booker listing will earn it, the book will polarise opinion as John Banville and Ali Smith have done in recent years, and some will want to toss the damn thing on an Irish peat fire. But persistence shows that this challenging and interesting book burns brightly on its own, and among the bleak flames it gives out there is a peculiar sort of warmth.

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91 Comments »

  1. jem said,

    Great to be able to read a Bookerthon review of one I’ve read. And good to see you draw pretty similar conclusions (including the ever present penis!).

    I’m not sure if I agree with you about what happened to Liam actually happened to Veronica. I think her witnessing it and not acting on it is the cause of her hang-ups and his, and perhaps her speculations about it happening to her, and ours, are just a way to excuse her lack of action… But who really knows.

    Thinking about the book with some days distance I think I feel quite like I did after last years Mother’s Milk – I didnt really like anyone in it, not enough to care what happened to them, but the writing drew me in, perhaps voyeuristically, and so made the read a good one?

  2. John Self said,

    Well my suggestion is pure speculation – though would possibly account for Veronica’s obsession with men’s members! – so I wouldn’t seek to push it further than that.

    I enjoyed Mother’s Milk immensely as it was on the surface very funny, which is more than you can say for The Gathering (bitter wit notwithstanding!). I’ve never subscribed to the notion that characters have to be likeable to make a book likeable, but they do have to be interesting at least.

  3. sarah said,

    hi John, I found your excellent blog through the guardian’s website yesterday and just wanted to say interesting points about The Gathering. Personally the Enright’s my favourite of those I’ve read but I do think it’s a bit of an aquired taste. I like your take on what might have happened although on first reading it I believed either, like Jem, that she witnessed it and felt ashamed for letting her brother down or that they were both abused.

    I do wonder if people will think that its a bit of a tired topic, large Irish family, oh there must be something nasty in the woodshed but I love Enright’s language and I have to say I didn’t find the characters that unlikeable and I did think they were interesting – I liked the exploration of the dynamics of a large family and how it can crush you, teh way some children were able to get away from it and others were dragged down and I like the fact that Veronica’s dislike and self-hatred is fuelled as much by a desire to deny her family and their background and to reconfigure herself as firmly middle class as by what might or might not have happened in the past.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks for dropping by sarah. I saw numerous reviews of this book in the press, and they seemed to be either unqualified orgiastic praise, or complete hatchet jobs. I wanted to express a mixed view, which is that it is a very good and artful read, but without doubt for most people (including me) a challenging one because of the structure and Veronica’s relentlessly grim view of things. I am all for a bit – or a lot – of bleakness in books, for example Richard Yates, but this seems to be of a different order entirely.

  5. [...] what the bookerthon judges Dovegreyreader and John Self thought and I’m underwhelmed and unexcited. I’m still going to read Darkmans when it [...]

  6. Paddy said,

    I’ve been reading The Gathering over the last few days and enjoying it a lot, well, maybe ‘enjoying’ is the wrong word for such a bleak, morbid and despairing book. Enright can be very funny, though, and the Hegartys feel incredibly real to me, with all their hang ups and madness, always fuelled by a maddening love. I was pleased to see her winning the Booker, though a book that shares many of its themes and just missed the Booker prize a few years ago – Gerard Woodward’s mindblowing I’ll Go To Bed At Noon – is a much more rounded, humane book and it’s a shame it didn’t recieve the same accolade (and resulting book sales).

  7. John Self said,

    Hi Paddy. Well it’s funny you should mention I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, as I picked it up a few weeks ago and have had it on my bedside table meaning to get started on it soon. I’ve heard it so highly praised – and now by you as well – that I’m actually afraid my expectations may be too high and I’ll be disappointed as a result… But I will definitely get to it next.

  8. Paddy said,

    It’s an amazing book, but does start quite slowly and Donovan’s style takes a bit of getting used to. After the first 50 pages, though, I was hooked.

    I also think that any Booker Jury that didn’t feature Patrick McCabe’s wonderful Winterwood on the longlist mustn’t be as thorough as they should be. Like the Woodward book, it shares some of the themes of The Gathering but is a much more accomplised piece of work.

  9. John Self said,

    Well quite, Winterwood is absolutely terrific and I enjoyed seeing McCabe read from and discuss it in the Spiegeltent at last year’s Belfast Festival. One of my favourite books of last year. The hardback had a red ribbon bookmark sewn in and every time I opened it, I kept seeing it as a trickle of blood running down the pages…

  10. Paddy said,

    Oooh, creepy, and very fitting for such a chilling book. Definitely a book I’ll go back to and re-read, just to figure who exactly Ned Strange was…

  11. Porter Poll said,

    Is it true, as a comment published by the Telegraph suggests, that Anne Enright plagiarised the central themes of The Gathering for another source?

  12. John Self said,

    I don’t know Porter, but I’d be careful about using words like ‘plagiarised’ if I were you. That would suggest wholesale lifting of specific passages. Themes themselves can’t be plagiarised, surely, otherwise Graham Swift would have been slapped with a court order by the William Faulkner estate over Last Orders (another Booker winner), which was a clear rewrite of As I Lay Dying.

    The central themes in The Gathering, which I won’t detail for fear of spoiling the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, are hardly novel and I expect they’ve been done many times before, not just in the film Festen (which I take it is the comment you’re referring to).

  13. Paddy said,

    The Telegraph story is vulgar, philistine, sensationalist nonsense that doesn’t deserve any serious person’s attention. That paper hates the Booker Prize because they see it as worthy, intellectual piffle, The fact the winner was both Irish and a woman probably didn’t help either.

  14. onyekanwelue said,

    Cool. Haven’t read The Gathering, but will do that soon, because of the whole things people have been writing about it. I think the Booker is meant for books-accepted-by-agents-accepted-by-publishers-and-rejected-by-the-readers. And I like that!

  15. [...] of – or failing that, readers of reviews of – Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering may recall that this Irish family saga was almost indecently steeped in sex, and the male member in [...]

  16. Nick said,

    John, I promised my opinion of The Gathering so here it is for what it’s worth. Despite it being generally described as the story of a family, I was disappointed it didn’t tell me anything about families I didn’t know already. Yes, traumatic childhood incidents can damage us for the rest of our lives. Yes, mothers can be exhausted by having so many children. Yes, wives can loathe their husbands. Yes, children can have very different personalities. So what’s new?

    The book jumps from one situation and one memory to another in a rather impulsive way, without any central focus or message. Sometimes it focuses on Liam, sometimes on Ada, sometimes on Nugent, and I felt I never really got under the skin of any of them. There are many flashes of brilliant insight, but in between there’s a lot of pretty humdrum descriptive prose of the “Mum sat down and got up again. She was feeling fidgety” variety.

    There are better TV programmes about families and how they interact and screw each other up. There are certainly better books, like Ann-Marie Macdonald’s “As The Crow Flies”. In terms of perceptiveness and originality and emotive power, I have to say I thought The Gathering was very much an also-ran. Sorry!

  17. John Self said,

    No need for apologies Nick, and I appreciate you taking the time to post your thoughts. As time passes I myself feel less warmly toward the book, though I still think it admirable and impressive as a piece of writing. When I said above that I thought it would polarise opinion, I didn’t realise I meant my own too!

    I trust your copy will find a good home in the local charity shop!

  18. Nick said,

    I was relieved to find a decidedly non-enthusiastic Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Irish Times today. She says (apologies if you’ve already read it): “I find contemporary so-called literary fiction almost invariably disappointing or unpleasant. Foolishly I allowed myself to be persuaded into reviewing Anne Enright’s The Gathering for the Literary Review, which made me feel sick (I am squeamish) and which I dismissed as horrid a few days before she won the Man Booker prize.” Though dismissing the whole field of contemporary fiction out of hand is pretty absurd ….

  19. John Self said,

    Quite. But then Ruth Dudley Edwards is given to sweeping pronouncements against good writers, such as Salman Rushdie. There’s the tiniest hint in this article that it might be resentment that her ‘satirical crime novels’ don’t get the same critical regard as the literary novelists. And she complains about ‘political correctness’ in that piece too. Nuff said.

  20. Nick said,

    Interesting article. I take her point that people can get far too pretentious and sniffy about what is real writing as opposed to populist guff, but I’m always wary of someone who mentions political correctness (which translated basically means caring about other people). An interesting point is the number of ‘serious’ novels that could actually be described as crime fiction because serious crime is a major element (Therese Raquin to name but one).

  21. Liam Connell said,

    I just finished The Gathering an hour ago. I enjoyed it, but due, to a large extent, because the heroine is the same age as me, and I also grew up in Dublin. I left Dublin for Chicago twenty years ago, and it was fun to see what was common and different being middle aged in two different cities. It is well written, but the subject matter is pretty well trodden. Irish Catholics are becoming the new “New York Jews” of the literary world, in their self absorption and wallowing in their ethnicity (although it is good material). When will someone do a good parody of this genre so we can have a good laugh and get over ourselves (“The Butcher Boy” came close)?
    I found the child abuse angle to be contrived, and unconvincing (although God knows I know how rife it was). The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, was how the family members evolved from the same family background into such different people, inhabiting different parts of Irish (mainly middle class) society. I also thought that Veronica expressed a lot of the frustration and bewilderment I see in my Irish female contemporaries, playing the role and the duties of affluent housewives/wives/mothers. They are all terrified of becoming their mother.
    So good marks for writing style, low marks for story structure, high marks for sociological insight.

    • Rob said,

      Cool Liam, not sure if I would enjoy the book though. Maybe you should review books in your next venture!
      -Sagurton

  22. John Self said,

    Thanks for your fascinating comments, Liam. A parody is a fine idea, and interestingly, Patrick McCabe in his last novel Winterwood seems to be moving away from that into more ‘sincere’ (if that’s the word) territory.

    Irish Catholics are becoming the new “New York Jews” of the literary world

    This made me laugh, largely because my reading recently with Roth has been steeped in New York Jewishness – and I’m just developing a taste for it! I know exactly what you mean though.

  23. grace said,

    Hi, I have really enjoyed reading all of the comments on The gatherng. My own feelings are that I have ‘enjoyed’ reading it but my main issue would be with the intense rage and self loathing that Veronica feels. Where is this comming from?. I kept thinking that the next chapter would reveal something about Veronica that would justify her pain, but no. I really do not think that it was really Veronica that was abused and not Liam. I do think that she felt enormous guilt for closing the door on her 9 year old brother with ‘terrified eyes’. For me the most likeable part of the book is her relationship with Liam when they were children and to some extent when they were adults. The way they shared a bed, the endless talking about nothing, the fact that within this large family they were almost alone together. Overall I am glad I read it. Next Book ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. Any opinions?

  24. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments grace. The Road is another one where ‘enjoyment’ might require inverted commas! Very powerful in my view, quite immersive in the setting, so much so that I felt the need to come up for air from time to time … but also a tiny bit of dislike for McCarthy’s occasionally portentous style (“The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” is one phrase that sticks with me). Do let me know what you make of it. You might require a little light relief after The Gathering and then that!

  25. breda said,

    I’ve just finished readind “The Gathering” and I adored it from the first sentence to the last. I picked it up simply because it had just won the booker prize and I wanted a change from my usual “true story” type of book. I, unlike most of you,had complete sympathy with each of the carachters as they all had a common bond in the shape of their long suffering “mammy”.
    “Don’t tell mammy” ,was in my opinion, the defining statement that effects all theirttr lives throughout the book leaving them cold as they had no real mother to talk to. I believe this is ultimatly a book about an emotionally detached family who are impossible to truly love as they were never truly loved. I however as a reader loved them all.They are a product of a common phenonomen; The Irish Home-pre contraception; I will never forget this book.

  26. John Self said,

    Thanks for adding your thoughts breda – delighted to see someone who got unqualified pleasure from The Gathering. Looks as though identification with the characters might be key with this one: I was miles away from that, so much so that I felt Veronica in particular couldn’t have been intended to be one bit likeable … so it just goes to show how much I know!

  27. breda said,

    Maybe I think I’m unlikeable myself and revelled in her pity!! Either way I imagine if I ever had the courage to write a book it would have the same deppresive air. After reading the comments on your site I think I’ll read “I’ll go to bed at noon” next, so thanks for all the great ideas i’ve picked up here and I’ll definately be back to leave some more amateur comments! Hey you never know I may even get started on that “much talked and thought about but never actually attempted” book!!

  28. Stewart said,

    you never know I may even get started on that “much talked and thought about but never actually attempted” book!!

    Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow? ;)

  29. Noosner said,

    Congrats on chairing such an interesting and balanced discussion on the Internet, without anyone slagging each other off (yet).

    I saw Anne Enright do a reading from ‘The Gathering’ just before it won the Booker Prize and she was mesmerising. Perhaps this raised my expectations too high, but the book never achieved such dizzying heights again while I was reading it.

    I agree that there were some wonderful passages, and I particularly loved the way Veronica talked about her husband – I didn’t feel she hated him, more that she was being very honest about the ambiguities that exist in most long term relationships and even in the act of sex (though maybe that says something a bit too revealing about me!). But I felt the writing of the abuse incident was poor – it should have been the moment the story hinged on, but the jumbled feel of the narrative up to that point meant there was no suspense and a lack of significance.

    So – in common with others, a mixed experience, though I’m glad I read it!

  30. Noosner said,

    p.s. and (re Veronica’s feelings towards her husband) I think Enright is reflecting the resentment one often feels towards those left living – even people we love – when someone else we love dies.

  31. John Self said,

    Thanks Noosner; I’ve never chaired a discussion before so thanks for bestowing that accolade on me!

    I’m sure you’re right in your last observation there: maybe it’s because I’ve never been bereaved that I didn’t empathise more with Veronica.

    Perhaps it’s for the best that the Booker should have gone to something that polarises opinions so much – what would we have to talk about if we all agreed on it? Then again, I can’t think of the last time the Booker winner was universally acclaimed. You probably have to go back to 1989 and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Unless of course you know different…

  32. Noosner said,

    Yes, I guess that’s true. Do you tend to read the Booker winners? If so, what has been your favourite winner in recent years? and least favourite?

    I loved ‘The Sea’ (for its atmosphere and truthfulness) and ‘Life of Pi’ (for its clever concept and brilliant storytelling) but not ‘The God of Small Things.’ I thought it was a good first novel but not THAT good. And I think it must be the kiss of death for a first time novelist to win a big prize straight off. Where is there to go next?

  33. John Self said,

    I’ve read most of the recent Booker winners, Noosner. Like you I enjoyed The Sea (2005) and Life of Pi (2002). The Line of Beauty (2004) I liked but then re-read it when the TV series was on and didn’t warm to it as much; Vernon God Little (2003) I thought was OK but not really a worthy winner, and I must admit to not getting very far with The Blind Assassin (2000), True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) or The Inheritance of Loss (2006).

    Put like that, the recent Booker winners look like a decidedly mixed bag to me, and none would have been even close to being my favourite book of the year. Go back one year more to1999, though, and to me a truly deserving winner emerges: Coetzee’s Disgrace.

  34. Mallory said,

    I am writing my term paper on The Gathering, and I’ll just say it isn’t a simple task, for more reason than one. Veronica has proved herself to be a nearly neurotic storyteller. The writing, i think, is fantastic. I love her voice. But it’s hard to enjoy through the bitterness of her tone and the indecisiveness of her style.
    I liked what someone included about Ruth Dudley Edwards’ comment on today’s literature. It’s so true. The term “good book” has been redefined of late…i always think of a good book as one that is not only a good story, but one that is told well. I feel as if the story of the Gathering is being told, but it is hard to tell what the story is…if that makes any sense. It’s like a puzzle where the pieces look promising, but do not fit together. I also sense the strange, intentional disorganization that seems to have infected most of today’s literature. I do have to admit, however, Enright’s voice of purposeful chaos is much less forced than some others’ I’ve read.
    Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Johnathan Saffran Foer, deals with similar themes and elements – death, family, a self-despising main character. It also jumps around between family members, and by the end of the book, some of them are as familiar and real as an actual person, and others remain strangely unexplored, without any sense of subordination. It is beautifully written, and though it follows the pattern of intended pandemonium, it makes perfect sense in a subconcious way, and it creates a new path, so to speak. In my mind, Foer accomplished with his book what Enright attempted in hers.

  35. John Self said,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mallory – I agree that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a brilliant book. The style of Enright’s previous novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is very different from that of The Gathering, but equally idiosyncratic and difficult to get to grips with. I hope the term paper goes well!

  36. Noosner said,

    Hi again
    Must look the Foer book up – sounds excellent. I agree with you, John, about Disgrace: a phenomenal winner. Also about Vernon God Little – I did enjoy it but didn’t feel it to have much stature. I read half of The Inheritance of Loss (nuff said perhaps), and didn’t get much of out the Peter Carey, though normally I love his work. I put that down to having listened to it as an audiobook. I haven’t tackled the other 2 yet. Am on with a crime novel now, for light relief (nothing like a nice relaxing bit of murder!)

  37. Nan said,

    Thanks so much for this blog! ‘The Gathering’ is the current selection of a small book club of which I am a member. I finished the book last night and had hoped to see Ms Enright at a reading this evening but, sadly, we are iced in here in Wisconsin. The book is still tumbling through my head, trying to rearrange itself chronologically, trying to determine what did/did not happen. I can’t say I enjoyed the story; but the descriptions of her siblings kept me reading. I could almost see her sister, Kitty–“there was something transcendental about her rage at six or seven…” . I am wondering if it was the physical abuse of the father to Liam which eventually drove him to suicide. Fear that he would do the same to his young son.

  38. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting, Nan (virtual visits are so much easier when you’re snowed in) and I hope the comments above have given you some food for thought about The Gathering.

  39. Angie said,

    Some people who liked it! Yay!

    John Self already knows how much I loved this book. I found The Gathering very different from anything I had read before, and not trying to be “like” anything else. Must read the Foer now though.

    I am currently reading Enright’s “What are you Like?” – half way through and the jury’s still out.

  40. Colette Jones said,

    For the person who loved “The Gathering” and now wants to read “I’ll Go to Bed at Noon” – I say GO FOR IT! Both of these books are off the charts for me. You might want to read “August” first to fully appreciate Colette.

  41. John Self said,

    Thanks for dropping by Angie – I’m putting any further Enright investigations on hold after not enjoying The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch – review elsewhere on this blog. I look forward to hearing what you make of What Are You Like? however.

  42. Colette Jones said,

    Yes, I saw that “The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch” did not turn you into an Enright fan. Sorry for commenting with two identities. I forgot I had a login the first time!

  43. Loree said,

    I’m so glad I kept googling until I found something useful in helping me understand “The Gathering”. I read it for a book club, didn’t finish before the meeting, but went anyway. I was the only one at the meeting that didn’t like the book. I found Veronica bitter and a little too obsessed not only with the male member but also with tasting and licking things. After listening to my friends, I decided to give Veronica another chance. Having just finished it, I still did not like it. However, after reading all of these other comments, I am glad that I finished the book and am OK with the fact that I didn’t like it.
    Thanks to you all!

  44. John Self said,

    Glad to be of service, Loree! The Gathering certainly seems to polarise opinion, and while I had mixed feelings about it, to be honest I expected most readers to take your view on it. Thanks for visiting; there are lots of other discussions here so have a look at the Author Index top right and see if there’s anything that interests you.

  45. Spartan 117 said,

    Hmm… This seems like a good place to discuss [i]The Gathering[/i]. In Chapter 26, little Emily told her mother, Veronica that ‘it’s OK to kill yourself, you know, when you’re old.’ Now, I don’t think many kids would talk like that… Also, any thoughts as to why Ernest left the priesthood, exactly? Veronica considered Ernest a hypocrite but why is it so?

  46. John Self said,

    All good questions, Spartan, but I’m afraid it’s almost a year since I read the book so I can’t remember enough details to provide an answer! If you come back from time to time, others might have filled in some responses for you…

    As to Emily’s words which you quote, well from memory I didn’t think the dialogue in The Gathering was particularly naturalistic anyway, nor were many of Veronica’s observations ones that I could empathise with.

  47. Lorna said,

    I have just finished reading The Gathering and I cannot stop thinking about all of the possible sources for Veronica’s anger. Even her love for Liam was questionnable in that at times she hated him and was bitter towards him. Whilst I am not sure that I actually enjoyed the story it is fulfilling to read a novel that has you thinking in such great depth on completion. I would however be interested in understanding other people’s interpretation of the ending of the story as it did leave me feeling confused in terms of Veronica’s intentions and whether or not she was capable of returning to real life or would keep running.

  48. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comment Lorna. I’m afraid I can’t be much help as it’s a year since I read The Gathering – though I remember the gist of the last lines (“I have been falling into my life for months. And I am about to hit it now” or something). If anyone else can help, please do so!

  49. Tony S. said,

    My favorite line from “Tne Gathering” is

    “You don’t always, can’t always, like the ones you love.”

    That’s a perception that rings true for me, and I never heard it expressed so simply before “The Gathering”.

  50. Jacqueline said,

    The Gathering – Thought Veronica was a bit of a rambler. She seem to jump all over the place. Just when it’s getting interesting she stops suddenly and changes course. I found this quite frustrating. Why was Liam in prison – why mention it at all. I thought this would lead somewhere, maybe part cause of his suiside, but no more was said. I won’t read anoth by Ms Enright.

    On a personal note , I dislike the fact that the author has decided to discuss the Mc Cann family regarding their missing daughter. Ann Enright should keep her opinions to herself.

  51. Stewart said,

    On a personal note , I dislike the fact that the author has decided to discuss the Mc Cann family regarding their missing daughter. Ann Enright should keep her opinions to herself.

    Three things:

    1) That was ages ago.
    2) It was a great piece. Have you actually read it?
    3) Since that’s your opinion, why aren’t you keeping it to yourself?

    • Maren Schmidt said,

      I read the piece on the Mc Canns which I found unforgiveable. Enright actually said that the conviction the Mc Canns had ‘done’ it came over her family like ‘euphoria’. For me this was what was so repulsive,not the fact that she disliked them, plus the fact that had she not won the Booker, and how dubious an accolade is that these days, there’s no way the London Review would have given her a forum to spread exactly the same kind of half-truths the tabloids indulged in, albeit in slightly more (pseudo) literary language. As regards the final sentence, I’ve seldom seen a more blatant display of CYA. I read somewhere that Enright regretted the article. Well she might.

      • John Self said,

        CYA = covering your ass?

        Thanks for your comment, Maren, but a couple of points arise. You put ‘euphoria’ in quotation marks but Enright did not say that; you are misquoting her. She said

        In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns ‘did it’ swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah

        which is quite different. You also say that “had she not won the Booker … there’s no way the London Review would have given her a forum”. Well they did, because she hadn’t won the Booker when the column appeared (4 Oct 07, she won the prize on 16 Oct 07).

        I’m not defending the article or Enright (another link to it for anyone who’s interested) but in commenting on it, please don’t spread “the same kind of half-truths the tabloids indulged in.”

        (You’re right however that Enright has expressed regret, though only over the timing of the piece rather than its content.)

  52. Stewart said,

    One other thing, actually, why shouldn’t Enright take on the topic? The newspapers have been all over it with truths, half-truths, character assassinations, lies, and combed every aspect of the case.

  53. John Self said,

    Here is the relevant piece, so people can judge for themselves. Most vilification was heaped on Enright for saying that she ‘disliked’ the McCanns. Here is that line in context:

    Distancing yourself from the McCanns is a recent but potent form of magic. It keeps our children safe. Disliking the McCanns is an international sport. You might think the comments on the internet are filled with hatred, but hate pulls the object close; what I see instead is dislike – an uneasy, unsettled, relentlessly petty emotion. It is not that we blame them – if they can be judged, then they can also be forgiven. No, we just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass.

    I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it). I thought I was angry with them for leaving their children alone. In fact, I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say to go away. In this, I am as bad as people who complain that ‘she does not cry.’

    She ends the piece: “Then I go to bed and wake up the next day, human again, liking the McCanns.”

    • Maren Schmidt said,

      Thanks for your response, John, and I apologise for the misquotation.

      Just a few points.
      Collins dictionary – euphoria: feeling of great elation, esp when exaggerated

      hallelujah: an exclamation of praise to God, expression of relief or a similar emotion.

      In this context, are they quite as ‘different’ as you maintain? Not that that excuses the misquotation.

      I also apologise for getting the time sequence wrong. I read the Review piece after the Booker had been announced, all of twelve days difference according to you, by which time it was known that Enright was a front runner, undoubtedly a factor in her piece being commissioned.

      You also quote me, quite rightly, as saying I shouldn’t ” spread the same kinds of half-truths the tabloids indulged in.’ The tabloids ,with no shred of evidence, suggested that the Mc Canns murdered their daughter; Enright repeats bizarre accounts, ” completely unverified’ in her own words, of Kate Mc Cann’s interrogation and joked about the’ Shipton connection.’ Wife swapping ditto? I would suggest that my comments are very far from being the ‘same’ kinds of half-truths and innuendo peddled in that piece.

      You say Enright expressed regret about her article, though only about its timing. When, exactly, do you or did she consider the timing would have been appropriate?

      • John Self said,

        When, exactly, do you or did she consider the timing would have been appropriate?

        Maren, I’ve already said that I am not representing or defending Enright in this, so I can’t accept your conflation of us both in this question, and I can’t speak for her.

        Having said that, it is clear to me that Enright’s piece was not remotely comparable with the tabloid reports (which resulted in libel payouts by the newspapers concerned). She is reflecting on the unattractive thoughts which most humans indulge in, and the tendency to mix sympathy with suspicion against our own better judgement (which is precisely what she does in the paragraph you refer to).

        Incidentally my blog only allows three sub-levels of comments, to avoid having long narrow lines of text, so if you want to respond further, you will have to go to the bottom of the comments section.

  54. Demob Happy said,

    Hi John,

    Finished this recently – not sure if I’ll be able to summon the strength to post a review myslef, but i’ll let you know if I do. I would say this fell into the category of ‘admire more than enjoy’ – which is pretty much sitting on the fence. Yes it was a frustrating read, but clearly intended. The cyclical, repetitive nature of the writing redolent of being stuck in an emotional rut (due to the unresolved skeletans in the family closet).

    If I was to make a major criticism it would be that the endless jumping back to Ada’s love life two generations before did nothing for my understanding or engagement in what was supposed to be happening in the present. It always felt superfluous and written in such a maddeningly obfuscating way that I felt I had to re-read parts for clues when my mind wandered.

    James

  55. Kath McGowan said,

    I have just finished ‘The Gathering’, having left it on my shelf for a year until it came out and demanded to be read. As a middle aged mother from a large family, I can relate to the confusion that the intricacies of life bring. The examinations of our pasts always happen more in times of stress or of someone passing, having died or left. Veronica didn’t completely and tidily work it all out, which is exactly as it should be. Life is not tidy and what happened to Liam when he was nine may well have been the beginning of his unfortunate life. God knows I have sat til all hours with various siblings, trying to understand what makes my father the way he is, or my mother, brother, sister, son, for that matter, and sometimes you go to bed thinking you’ve worked it out ,and sometimes not.

    I enjoyed, if that is the right word, reading ‘The Gathering’ and will look out for Anne Enright in the future. What makes a book a good read is how much it makes you think, disturbing or otherwise.

  56. Jill WIlson said,

    I’ve struggled to read about a third of this book and have now tossed it into my charity shop bag. It bored me to death!

  57. John Self said,

    I admire your honesty, Jill! And I can see where you’re coming from.

  58. Kate said,

    Havin read ‘The Gathering’ some time ago, I am brought back into the story by the thoughtful comments above. Enright’s tone- at times harsh and clipped and full of icy perceptiveness startles into the realisation that we are dealing with a storyteller that is at once highly sensitive and heart-breakingly selfish. I plan on writing an essay on some of her short stories for college – can anybody recommend good ctitical work on them?

  59. Helena said,

    Just finished reading it. I kept picking it up since it won the Booker. It has been a book that has mapped out my every emotion in the last year, thank god im not alone!

  60. deucekindred said,

    To be honest I found it a VERY dull and self indulgent book. I tried my hardest to like it but it simply bored me to death.. I’m quite puzzled to see how people preferred this over The White Tiger, which I thought was a much better Booker Winner.

  61. John Self said,

    Well I can see what you mean, dk, and I was very surprised that The Gathering won, and would expect The White Tiger to sell more in the long run. However: I do think that The Gathering is by some way a ‘better’ book, by which I mean better written, richer and stranger, and giving the reader much more to contribute, making it a more thoughtful and provocative book. I can certainly see myself rereading it in the future, which is not something I’ll be doing with The White Tiger.

  62. Demob Happy said,

    I found the Gathering very hard work, but then I suppose it wasn’t supposed to be a picnic. For better or worse, it was hard to be empathetic towards the narrator, who is clearly a real handful. As you (sort of) said in your review, it’s a novel to admire rather than enjoy, but I’m not sure I’d go back to it myself (that’d be brave of you!).

  63. Maren Schmidt said,

    Re Enright: ” It is clear to me that Enright’s piece was not remotely comparable with the tabloids’…”
    I disagree. True, it has a Shakespearean quote (how upmarket and very untabloid), relying on the audience she was writing for to get the blood and death reference in relation to Gerry Mc Cann, but in its underlying lack of sensitivity to the Mc Canns’ situation, the article echoes the spirit of the tabloids. Her reflections on the public’s ambivalent response to such tragedy, based on her own reactions, misses the point, as do you: rather than jumping on a particularly unsavoury band-wagon powered by what used to be called the gutter press,she should have kept her assumption that she speaks for ‘us’ to herself, an assumption that tabloids regularly make. In other words, she in essence descended to their level. One commentator called the piece ‘offensively self-regarding’ which sums up the tone perfectly.

    It’s clear our opinions are diametrically opposed; you see an intellectual appraisal of an unfortunate trait in human nature, whereas I see a hatchet job beneath the musings. However I appreciate the chance to air my view even though the story is no longer news.

  64. If I can weigh in from across the ocean — and with no access to the tabloids — I did read the Enright piece when it was published and thought it was an entirely appropriate piece of journalism (and that used to be my trade). She raised relevant points in an entirely appropriate manner. I am afraid that I find those who attack her contribution to the debate to be those who don’t want to read an opinion different from a judgment that they have already reached. Good journalism is about challenging opinions like that, not protecting them. And it is also true that I find the McCann’s and their attempted manipulation of the media to be highly questionable — that is not a judgment on my part, but an observation from afar.

  65. Trevor said,

    I think it’s silly to keep harping on Enright for this. To think that Enright may have been insensitive is one thing, but to call it a tabloid-like hatchet job is to completely ignore the tone of the piece, not to mention all of the times she self-depracatingly admits to the faults she is obviously criticizing. This is an adroit piece of work. She admits there is no factual basis for some of the suspicions, and in showing that she still has suspicions and is using google earth to figure it all out, she’s not casting an ill light on the McCanns but rather on herself and those – the “us” – who do likewise. When she analyzes the words they say in interviews (which she watches over and over late at night on YouTube), I come away feeling more sympathy for the McCanns, whether or not they did it, not less. Whether they did it is not, actually, the topic of the essay.

    The piece is not so subtle that Enright’s intent is not incredibly obvious. It’s ignorance or wilful misreading to read it as a loose essay spreading false information. Also, it’s an avoidance of Enright’s topic to say that she is exploiting the McCanns.

  66. Eddy said,

    Most people adore Hollywood films and, in comparison, few people adore the finely crafted films that are these days found in the “World Cinema” category, films which generally deal with the complexity and reality of human existence. The reactions in this forum to “The Gathering” fall from similar camps. There are vast numbers of people who have little experience of complexity and depth in life, who seek instead the simple thrill, and it is such people who cannot appreciate the extraordinary piece of writing that is “The Gathering”. Nor, I suspect, could they endure Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” or Janet Frame’s “Towards Another Summer”. These books too they would toss into their local charity shop.

    Anne Enwright’s “The Gathering” is an exceptionally brave piece of writing. I haven’t before read a stream of consciousness so seemingly absolutely honest.

  67. Trevor said,

    The reactions in this forum to “The Gathering” fall from similar camps.

    Seems a pretty large generalization there. Saying those who do not love this book are simpletons gives too little credit to many and I think too much credit to Enright. I love Mrs. Dalloway but didn’t particularly like Enright’s The Gathering, though I do like Enright. While it’s true to say that many who want a quick thrill would not like this book, it’s safe to say that her bitter (I thought a bit overdone in this case) prose might not be for everyone even among those who have experienced the complexity and depth of the world.

  68. michael said,

    i took this book on holiday to read. i have to say that it left me on something of a downer in terms of my spirit both as i read it and since. and it is because of this i that looked for reviews of the book on my return. i read it purely for entertainment and to be fair it did provide quite compulsive distraction. i left the book contemplating the author’s view on desires of the flesh.
    many women are willing partners in the act of sex or, like veronica by her own admission, unable to resist for whatever reason a partners’s advances. it is too early to say whether her ‘last time’ with tom really will be her ‘last time’. it appears that whether in love or out of hatred, willing or unwilling, accepted or perverted, it is going to happen and that is that.
    sadly, veronica seems to have little disgust for nugent’s act or hatred of the man, more a resigned acceptance that this happened. sadder still when this was an act on her brother of all people. but maybe the huge scale of the family meant that liam was less of a brother and more just another person, a victim of a perverted old man.
    i don’t think i can bring myself to reread this book.

  69. John Self said,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Michael. I do think anyone coming to The Gathering purely for entertainment is going to come away disappointed – but it does look as though you got something else out of it in return, if only food for thought. Can’t say fairer than that.

  70. Sam said,

    Surprised I had nothing to say above, particularly as I did pick Enright out pre-longlist to win the damn thing – honest, guv. Anyway, I re-read it over this weekend and it’s better than I remembered. Veronica’s superb company – miserably funny, self-deprecating, cutting, erudite. I laughed out loud several times. And Enright has a superlative turn-of-phrase – Ada taking her black gloves off with ‘twitching precision’ for example. Most gratifyingly, the re-read brought more clearly to my mind how Enright/Veronica gathers each narrative strand’s local journeys into a finale that’s both a return to home and a departure from herself.

    Probably my favourite Booker winner since Coetzee’s Disgrace.

    I swear I must be part Irish. Am now fifity or so pages into Ed O’whatsitface’s Enright-blurbed Not Untrue & Not Unkind. Proving wonderful.

  71. John Self said,

    Sam, I presume the reason you didn’t comment on this book at the time is because you weren’t reading my blog back then!

    I am pleased to hear you say it improves on rereading. Although I had mixed feelings about the book, I was aware of the Booker Judges commenting on how it improved with each read, and I’ve been meaning to check on that myself ever since (I suspect I’ll agree). A Booker winner has to survive three readings, which is probably why the prize often turns up somewhat ‘difficult’ books like this or Banville.

    I don’t plan to read Ed O’Loughlin’s book as yours is the first praise I’ve heard of it, but do come back here and say what you made of it in the final analysis. It might even sway me.

    • michael said,

      which bit of banville was difficult??? i found it hugely readable and compulsive… i was almost surprised that something like this would make it thru ‘the process’….

      • John Self said,

        Well michael, you’ll note that I put ‘difficult’ in inverted commas, to convey that it had the perception of being difficult (I say this from comments I’ve read about it from a variety of readers). I personally found it probably the most readable of Banville’s books, but I wouldn’t deny the charge of ‘difficulty’ generally. By that I mean that his books require close and consistent attention which in itself is a rare enough requirement from many authors, and for many readers.

        Anyway I intend shortly to read his new novel The Infinities and will see how that one rolls.

        i found it hugely readable and compulsive… i was almost surprised that something like this would make it thru ‘the process’…

        Are you saying that you thought it was too populist to win the prize? That’s a charge I suspect Banville would be surprised, but perhaps amused, to hear. Anyway, if that is what you’re saying, I suggest you try some of the other books that are typically longlisted and shortlisted.

  72. michael said,

    interested to hear how you get on?!? yes… i do think that banville ‘the sea’ was quite mainstream and accesible… neither of which exclude it from being a great work…but both of which are not common features in major prize winners i think.

  73. Linda said,

    I have just finished reading ‘the gathering’ after persevering for a month – just a bit each day on the train to work – as it is our bookclub book for this month. Had I not had this reason for finishing it, it would have ended up in my bedside cupboard graveyard for books that didn’t grab me. I found it a real challenge, even as a middle-aged mother from a large catholic family. I found the way the narrative swirled around from one fact or fantasy to another very distracting and spent a lot of time re-reading whole sections when my mind had wandered off or just to work out what they were about. I kept waiting for ‘the point’ of the story. I worked out eventually that if I read it with an Irish accent (in my mind) it actually made more sense, but very tiring! Now that I’m finished I’m starting to like it better and looking for other’s ideas and thoughts I’ve discovered this blog – best thing to happen all week.

    I agree with others that it was difficult to like anyone in the book or care what happened to them, and I came to the same conclusion as you John that Veronica was sexually abused as well as Liam but couldn’t quite bring herself to admit it – hence her obsession with flesh and bodily fluids and her eternal self-loathing.

    I was excited to see yours and other comments about Coetzee’s Disgrace as I agree that this is the best of the Bookers to date – I would love to read a similar blog on that as I had a very different interpretation of the book to others in my bookclub.

  74. [...] which remains on my ‘must get around to reading’ list. Part of my reluctance to read The Gathering has come from the reviews, and more particularly from the comments of a number of friends involved [...]

  75. [...] Asylum [...]

  76. [...] read A.L. Kennedy’s review at The Guardian, John Self’s at Asylum and the comments  – but not till after you’ve finished reading the [...]

  77. Prosepine said,

    Just finished The Gathering. Thankyou for posting your reviews-responses. I found Veronica’s musing on how memory works quite plausable…that in and out vagueness between reality and fantasy left me a little unattached to the story as it unfolded-but wasn’t that just her state of mind? In the limbo between the ghosts of the dead children-the dead generations and the death she felt inside. Numbness in the face of realising she never really understood what happened until it was to late and numbness in trying to drum up the courage to speak it out-that which she had figured. I don’t think the abuse happened to her, but it destroyed her closest sibling and by proxy of the connection it destroyed a part of her. I found amidst all that coming and going of past and fantasy the Authors voice would sharpen up with still precise insights. It’s these little thoughtful gems of observation which stay with me from the book.

  78. [...] to no fanfare at all (though some noticed it), and went on to win the Booker Prize. I liked The Gathering on balance – just about, I think – but my main issue with it was an unexpected one. [...]

  79. Shelly Cline said,

    I loved this book. I lost my once-beautiful, 33-year old younger sister to alcoholism two months ago. We had a conflicted relationship and my family is now falling apart as a result of her unexpected death. This work has been the only thing that even comes close to my personal psychological experience in so many ways.

    In this work I recognized the larger Irish family issues of my parents, a and my husband’s parents, and even recognized some of my weaknesses as a mother.

  80. Shelly Cline said,

    After my sister’s death, I felt as though I had partially left this world, and was partially knocking on Heaven’s Door. I simply did not want to be here anymore, even though I have a lovely husband and four wonderful children.

  81. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments, Shelly, and I’m glad you’ve found at least some recognition of your unimaginable experience in the book.

  82. sandradan1 said,

    This is on my to-read shelf, it’s lurking there as I’m not sure I will enjoy reading it. SD


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