Here I am writing a review of The Gathering by Anne Enright. Here is the story briefly: Veronica Hegarty’s brother dies from a suicide drowning. She travels from Ireland to England to claim his body, arranges its return to Ireland, and gathers her many surviving siblings to their mother for the memorial service. While doing so, she travels into the past—her own, her grandmother Ada’s—to reveal a dark detail of sexual abuse she witnessed long ago involving her brother and an older man, a friend of her grandmother’s.
This book thrusts its enormous and hugely loving emotional reach through generations, across relationships—sibling to sibling, daughter to parents, granddaughter to grandparents, mother to children, wife to husband.
Lesson: Use clear “gatekeepers” to frame time shifts and emotional range.
Veronica’s life becomes unmoored by Liam’s death and by her memory of the incident from their past. Her journey through time and places could be as chaotic for the reader as it is for her, but Enright gives Veronica the good sense—she is the organized sibling, after all— to orient us with each shift of time and emotional focus.
Here are Enright’s “gatekeepers”—first lines for the first several chapters—that orient the reader to each chapter:
1. I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.
2. Some days I don’t remember my mother.
3. The seeds of my brother’s death were sewn many years ago.
4. I ring the bereavement people in Brighton and Hove from Mammy’s phone in the hall, and they give me the number of an undertaker who, very nicely, takes my credit card details while I have it handy.
5. Here is my grandfather, Charlie Spillane, driving up O’Connell Street towards his future wife in the Belvedere Hotel.
6. This is how I live my life since Liam died.
7. But let that wait. Let the poor chicken wait awhile. Here I am on the Brighton line, on my way to collect my brother’s body, or view it, or say hello to it, or goodbye or whatever you do to a body you once loved.
8. When I was eight and Liam was nearly nine, we were sent with our little sister, Kitty, to stay with Ada in Broadstone.
9. The man beside me on the train to Brighton lifts his pelvis slightly, and settle it back down.
10. Here’s Ada and Charlie in bed a year later.
11. I was opening the car door for the girls one day before Liam died and, as it swung past, I saw my reflection in the window.
12. Bad news for Bea and my mother and all the vultures who will flock to 4 Griffith Way for the wake—which is that there will be another ten days at least to wait before they can feast on Liam’s poor corpse, because of the paperwork involved.
13. When I was in college, I decided that Ada had been a prostitute—the way you do.
14. I think of her when I do the dishes.
Enright’s powerful and disturbing emotional material tumbles in Veronica’s mind, but the gatekeepers keep readers grounded when they enter the chapter as to time, place, and emotional territory explored.
Memory can be elusive to the narrator—where did it happen, when?—but readers don’t want to be confused by the where and when of the story. A clear narrative structure is not only kind to the reader, it also helps the author deliver her punch. The more emotional the material, the simpler the transition exposition can be, so that the emotional narrative or scenes rise like shark fins on a calm surface.
Lesson: Use all the senses to crescendo emotional material.
Enright writes from the body and uses all the senses. Sex is a theme throughout the story — good and bad, loving and illicit. The sensuality of children, their innocence, is played against what Veronica, now a grown woman, views in hindsight and what we, as adult readers, also glean in her storytelling.
Here’s me at the age of three, with my ear pressed against the beige tin cliff of her washing machine…
Here’s me eating Ada’s rubber bathing hat whose famous yellow flowers appeared in my nappy the next day. Though, of course it must have been Kitty’s nappy—hardly mine.
Here’s me, definitely, pulling the bathing cap over my face. I lick the salty inside of it, until it seals me up—the smell of Ada’s hair in the sea.
Ada’s little garden was probably just a yard, but we thought it an exciting place, with crab apples and nettles: the door to the garage was sometimes open and sometimes bolted, and the fat that you never knew if Mr Nugent was in there only added to the interest.
I just used to slide up and down the upholstery, or squirm across the nice rows of stitching, and talk in a grand voice to whoever was driving, whether or not he was actually there.
On a Friday he came round to the front door to know, and he always had sweets for the children. He wore a hat, which he doffed when Ada opened the door. It was many years before I wondered at the formality of this arrangement, or what was going on.
The themes of love, loss, sex, betrayal, and forgiveness reverberate across the years. The mysteries of the body and the heart befuddle the child and the woman Veronica has become, perhaps as they befuddled Ada, a woman of a different time, more repressed by her era than Veronica is by hers. Yet the freedoms of a more openly sexual era don’t make it easier for Veronica, a modern woman, to sort out her emotions.
Lesson: Use the tangible body to contrast with a psychological, emotional state.
Veronica veers back and forth from past to present and to and from her brother’s death and her own disintegration— her marriage to Tom, her sense of self. Enright plays Veronica’s fragile state of mind against tangible flesh and domestic objects.
I can not feel the weight of my body on the bed. I can not feel the line of my skin along the sheet. I am swinging an inch or so off the mattress, and I do not believe in myself—in the way I breath or turn—and I do not believe in Tom beside me: that he is alive (sometimes I wake to find him dead, only to wake again). Or that he loves me.
…I wake to a livid tumescence on his prone body; a purple thing on the verge of decay. Tom is flung wide on his back, asleep like a dead saint, or a child.
…And I turn around again and gather the covers about me, as the thing my husband is fucking in his sleep slowly recedes. A thing that might be me…Or it might not be me.
This is a setup for the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child and which appears in the book ten pages later. It also sets her more adrift.
Lesson: Follow Chekhov’s advice.
An often-quoted piece of advice from Anton Chekhov applies here.”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Substitute “penis.” His advice also concerns the economy of story elements put them there for a reason and make good use of them.
Enright prefigures the abuse scene Veronica witnessed as a child with a perfectly legitimate and ordinary bedroom scene featuring Tom’s “cock so purple and dense it was a burden to him.” (Page 133)
We have that image in our mind when, in the next chapter, the child Veronica happens upon Mr Nugent and Liam, in Ada’s good front room.
What struck me was the strangeness of what I saw, when I opened the door. It was as if Mr Nugent’s penis, which was sticking straight out of his flies, had grown strangely, and flowered at the tip to produce the large and unwieldy shape of a boy, that boy being my brother Liam, who, I finally saw, was not an extension of the man’s member, set down mysteriously on the ground in front of him, but a shocked (of course he was shocked, I had opened the door) boy of nine, and the member not even that, but the boy’s bare forearm, that made a abridge of flesh between himself and Mr Nugent.
As an adult, Veronica questions her memory. What did she really see? But readers see the penis—an echo of Tom’s erect and spousal, but this one erect and terrible—a threat to the young Liam. Neither he nor Veronica, at the time, understands the harm. We readers do understand. We know the difference between right and wrong, between a man naked with his wife in a casual bedroom scene and a man exposing himself to a young boy. Veronica, the young girl, could not have given us the vivid description of Mr Nugent’s penis that she gave of Tom’s. It would have been crude and inappropriate within her narrative. The unadorned description “so purple and dense” from the woman Veronica’s bedroom contrasts with the “flowered at the tip” from the child Veronica’s memory of her intrusion into her grandmother’s “good room.” There’s another contrast—not such a “good” room, after all.
Like Chekhov’s gun, the penis is a necessary element. It’s better to describe it before the crime, because in the heat of the moment, can we trust our eyes? And even if we could, the description would impede the crime scene, especially if we want doubt about what was witnessed to linger in the mind of a key character or the mind of the reader.
Lesson: Reveal emotions through the body.
We know bodies. We each have one. Usually our bodies know before we consciously understand what is wrong, what is right, and what our emotional state is. Enright gifts Veronica with body awareness, and Veronica lets us read her body along with her. We discover her emotional state as she does.
I have been so much touched these last few days. I cross my legs over the memory of the ex we had the night of the wake. Or he had. And wait for the Mass to begin. Everyone wants a bit of me. And it has nothing to do with what I might want, or what my body might want, whatever that might be—God knows it is a long time since I knew. There I am, sitting on a church bench in my own meat: pawed, used, loved, and very lonely.
I won’t tell here how the story ends. Veronica’s memory of Liam’s abuse appears halfway through the book. It’s the trigger for her bodily and emotional journey through time and space.
But even if you know how the book ends, you’ll want to read it again and again for the Enright’s exquisite and profound sensory gathering of emotions.