In a word: heavy. Or so you might think. But in this mystery of past causes, the transformative power of Enright’s language keeps the story’s freight from burdening the reader. Veronica’s reminiscences have an incantatory power that makes them not depressing but enthralling … Enright hides her painterly brushstrokes. The Gathering still casts fiction’s spell, but its detours from reality are surreal, not unreal: nothing happens that could not happen, that has not happened, to somebody. Bringing together the skills she has honed along the way, Enright carries off her illusions without props or dei ex machina, bravely engaging with the carnival horrors of everyday life. As Veronica struggles to understand her brother’s suicide, she tells herself that she owes it to Liam to acknowledge his past, their past, without flinching.
The Gathering is a novel about memory: who did what to whom, who remembers the facts clearly and who doesn't. (Hardly anyone does, even the narrator.) Enright explores the tragedy of a brother's suicide by sorting through events that occurred, or did not, in a terraced house in the north Dublin suburb of Broadstone 'round about 1968. Or maybe it was in the garage; memory, Enright signals, is a painful, tricky thing … Everything that happens and does not happen here feels painfully and awkwardly true, even the notes of redemption. Enright seems to know the bone structure of the Irish family during its turbulent silence of the 1960s and '70s, when elders were still treated with fearful deference and children were less important than they are now, perhaps because there were so many of them and the houses were so tiny.
While, in the opening chapters, Veronica informs her siblings of Liam’s death, then travels from Dublin to Brighton to recover her brother’s corpse, she also gives us snippets of information, rapid caricatures, sharp memories of the family home and family habits. This is efficiently done and the evocation of an overcrowded space full of busy life is one of the book’s achievements … When, on the other hand, she slides into melodrama and literary formula, The Gathering does indeed sound like at least nine other writers and by no means the best. As my response to the novel swung back and forth from admiration to irritation, it was hard not to wish that Enright had concentrated on the complex and chaotic Hegartys and given us rather less of the lurid, convenient, and suspiciously topical Lamb Nugent.
Enright has written a wonderfully elegant and unsparing novel that takes the old Irish subjects of family dysfunction and the vagaries of memory into territory made fresh by an objectivity so precise it seems almost loving in its care … One of Enright's great strengths is her ability to take the conventions, stage settings and stock characters of Irish fiction and dip them in the acid of a sensibility utterly immune to piety or cant, religious or cultural. This is work as suspicious of the newly unsentimental, tell-all Ireland as it is of the ‘Hidden Ireland's’ old reticence and verities. An experienced reader recognizes a lot of Irish types and tropes in an Enright novel, then realizes they've never seen them in this light before. Thus, while the now requisite, long-hidden sexual trauma seems to be near the heart of Veronica's narrative – and a slow deconstruction of memory and self – there is too much ambiguity of cause-and-effect to turn recollection into diagnosis.
Veronica's narrative is propelled by the force of her need. On the surface, the story relates how Veronica carries on after Liam's death, making funeral arrangements, seeing to her vast, sprawling family, and, at her mother's request, coordinating the wake to be held in her childhood home in Ireland. At the same time, Veronica grows increasingly detached from her domestic life … The route to truth is a slippery one, and several obstacles bar her way. Regarding the past, her family maintains a stubborn silence, whether to protect their mother's peace of mind (‘Don't tell Mammy’ was a persistent refrain in childhood) or preserve an appearance of normalcy. In this family, communication is genuinely impossible. With no one to help her, Veronica must turn inward, to an imperfect memory and a vivid – and unruly – imagination.
Liam was the victim of a crime, and Veronica as witness will expose it. The crime is in the past, which means the novel becomes an act of reclamation. For Veronica, bones are words; sentences are skeletons: intricate, delicate, perfect, breakable – ‘I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.’ They are what is inside things; what props them up … The skeletons are out of the closet. The bones are lined up. The words are on the page. With its resuscitations, The Gathering is a ghost story of sorts...Veronica aside, the most compelling characters in this novel are all dead, brought back to life by the skill and the imagination of the family historian, the family imaginer.
Like many of her novels, The Gathering reads like Enright takes a coherent story, disassembles the plot first, then pieces everything back together a second time. With more than one narrative thread, she stitches the story together with imagined histories, feathery tufts of ruminitions, and sharp flecks of poetry. The ensuing result is a disorienting, hardscrabble, but extremely pretty read … But by the time you find out what Veronica may have witnessed about her brother in her grandmother’s house years ago, you wonder if it even really matters. It’s one of the predicaments of reading Enright that I’ve never really resolved: her prose can be so gun-slingingly sublime, but the narration is often so footloose that it almost overrides the plot and characters themselves.
...the clunkiest exercise in unreliable narration imaginable … Alcoholism, child molestation and casual beatings figure in the picture, with Enright's simplistic take on human psychology echoing the clumsiness of her narrative. Apart from some lip service in the book's final pages, Veronica speaks as if there's no such thing as love, or even fond feeling. There is some occasional felicitous phrasing in the book (‘London was all flow, it had no edges, it was everywhere’). But that's not enough to save this sloppy, unaffecting dirge of a novel.
The Gathering isn't a simple thing at all – it's a genuine attempt to stare down both love and death, to anatomise their pains and fears and peculiar pleasures. At which point I ought to talk about the sheer physicality of Enright's writing. The one word roar recurs though the text, as if to remind us of the din within each of her characters … Although Liam appears relatively seldom, his portrayal is pitch-perfect. The beautiful boy who destroys himself, the huge eyes begging impossible love, the hearts of his women rifled and then broken before the final act of liquid self-destruction, a march into the sea, pockets full of stones … For Enright, the body, the mind, the will, the world, the heart – all work upon each other in a terrible, wonderful roar of life.
Veronica's mental journey back, not just to her own childhood but also to her grandparents' imagined courtship, is her attempt to delineate causes from consequences and individual nature from family environment. And while the details, the facts, are shifty and evasive, the emotion fueling Veronica's dive off the deep end is unambiguous and high-test … This novel is not just the latest entry in the once-popular recovered-memory-of-abuse genre; in fact, the traumatic events are the least of the story. The Gathering is a witty, scatological, and moving splendor of a novel. Enright's language is percussive one moment, liquid the next, and always in the service of Veronica as we accompany her in her hobbled, painful steps toward self-reinvention.
Enright is an original. Her poetic, often lovely phrasing and surprising perspectives create a distinctive mood, and her novel subtly links the Hegartys in a chain of damage, regret and finally continuity. A dreamy, melancholy swirl of a story, wise about the bonds and burdens linking children to each other and their grown selves.