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.