A Death in the Family

Prior to pursuing a career in writing, Irish writer Anne Enright worked as a television producer and director for Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), the national broadcaster of Ireland. After six years of working at the RTÉ, she finally resigned to focus on her writing. She has already established herself as a promising literary voice when her first published work, The Portable Virgin (1991), a collection of short stories, won the 1991 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Four years later, she published her first novel. What ensued is a prolific career that recognized her capabilities as a top-caliber writer. However, it was in 2007 that she made one of her biggest breakthroughs. The Gathering was announced the winner of the 2007 Booker Prize. It was a landmark victory for it was her first time being shortlisted for the award. It was also noteworthy that she was against one of the most established names in Booker Prize history, Ian McEwan, a previous winner and shortlisted for the fifth time that year.

With her Booker Prize win, Enright became just the fifth Irish writer to win it. Published in 2007, The Gathering was Enright’s fourth novel. Set in contemporary Dublin, the novel zeroes in on the Hegarty clan, a huge Irish Catholic family of 12 children, three of which have already passed away. The eponymous gathering revolves around the most recent death among the siblings which involved the middle child and the proverbial family black sheep, Liam. Over the past few years, he has become enslaved by the bottle, which further estranged him from his family; he was also manipulative but charming. In a family as large as the Hagerty, estrangements are not unusual. His addiction abetted his death by suicide drowning on the beaches of Brighton, on the southern coast of England.

Tasked to identify and claim Liam’s body was 38-year-old Veronica, one of the middle children. Born a year apart, Liam and Veronica were the closest to each other. Veronica also took it upon herself to arrange for her brother’s funeral; their father has already passed away while the matriarch was suffering from dementia. None of her siblings could be bothered to do the arrangements because, at the heart of it, they are a band of disorganized individuals. She mustered the strength to get everything organized despite suffering from her own concerns. She was also having a marital crisis, centered around her husband’s infidelity. Like most of her siblings, her troubles led her to the bottle.

“There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest. And the girls will be picked up from school, and dropped off again in the morning. Your eldest daughter can remember her inhaler, and your youngest will take her gym kit with her, and it is just as you suspected – most of the stuff that you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to love you.”

~ Anne Enright, The Gathering

To the rest of the family, Liam’s death by suicide was imminent. It was the culmination of his years of addiction, endless wandering, and self-indulgence. However, for Veronica, the death of her brother was not as simple as what her other siblings have deemed it to be. The untimely demise of her favorite albeit wayward brother, compounded by her marital concerns, set into motion a series of flashbacks. As she tries to make sense of the fate that befell her brother, her memories brought her back to the 1960s, in the house of their grandparents:. The novel opened: “I would like to write what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have been taken place.”

The Gathering is a multilayered story about the Hegarty family, but it focused mainly on the perspective of Veronica. Through her first-person point-of-view, the portrait and the dynamics of the Hegarty family started to take a firmer shape. The Hegarty family is the archetype of many large families. They are a collection of contrasting personalities that often clash and rarely agree on anything, except perhaps on the root cause of Liam’s death. They were the quintessence of a rambunctious and dysfunctional family, as most large families are. “God I hate my family, these people I never chose to love but love all the same,” echoed with the profundity of the tenuous relationships we have with our families.

While the Hegarty family was filled with complicated relationships, the clan also abounded with heartwarming connections, such as the brother-sister bond that Veronica and Liam have forged over the years. “Because I am the one who loved him most,” Veronica reflected when she made all decisions pertaining to her brother’s funeral arrangement. Born eleven months apart, Liam and Veronica inevitably grow up side-by-side and close. They share a special bond. The bond between them, however, wend beyond blood and their proximity in the family hierarchy. As Veronica deals with her grief, she took the readers on a trip down memory lane. This flashback provides a deeper context to what happened to Liam.

In her trip down memory lane, Veronica started weaving the history of her family, from the time their grandmother, Ada Merriman, first met Lambert Nugent. Ada would eventually Charlie but Lambert remained a close family friend. The pivotal event that altered Liam and Veronica’s life took place in the summer of 1968, in their grandmother’s house, when Veronica was just eight or nine years old. Veronica was a witness to something that a young girl should have not witnessed. Following the incident, Veronica was a first-hand witness of how the traumatic experience changed the trajectory of her brother Liam. She fervently believed that it was the trauma from this incident that has led to Liam losing his grip on reality. This eventually led to his substance abuse, one factor to his untimely demise.

“There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nienteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, cout the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers o the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.”

~ Anne Enright, The Gathering

However, if there is one thing about memory worth noting is that it can be complicated. The passage of time makes it vulnerable to alternations that can muddle one’s memory of a certain episode in one’s life. This was demonstrated by Veronica in her flashback to the incident of that fateful summer of 1968. The story reverberated with the frustrations Veronica felt when the haziness of her recollections betrayed the story of her brother. There were vivid moments of clarity but then these were contrasted with several moments of uncertainty: “I owe it to Liam to make things clear – what happened and what did not happen in Broadstone. Because there are effects. We know that. We know that real events have real effects. In a way that unreal events do not. Or nearly real. Or whatever you call the events that play themselves out in my head.”

This virtual tug-of-war was prevalent in the story. As one digs deeper, the muddled memory slowly transformed into a symptom of Veronica’s grief. And the symptoms were written all over the story. Her attempt to make sense of the past, from her grandmother’s history to the incident involving her brother, was but one of the manifestations of Veronica’s grief. This resonated on a universal scale, of how the bereaved struggle to make sense of their experience. Clouded by grief, our memory often becomes abstract, leading us to misconstrue certain events. We try to find blame, and, most of the time, we find it in the wrong places. We try to hold on to something and memories are the closest thing we can cling to. There were other manifestations of Veronica’s grief, such as the disconnection from her husband and children, and the bitterness she felt towards the rest of the family.

Apart from the complexities of memory, The Gathering managed to explore a bevy of dark and heavy subjects, including substance abuse, alcoholism, and even mental health. Both pedophilia and domestic and sexual abuse were prominently captured in the story. Sex was a leitmotif; Veronica’s memory drifts in and out with vivid and graphic details of it. The novel also resonated with hopeful messages, especially where love and family are concerned. After the bout with grief and pain, hope still sprang eternally. As Veronica decides to move forward and not be imprisoned by memories, the story flowed with hopefulness and redemption that alleviated the pains of the past.

As the prominent voice, Veronica loomed large in the story. In Veronica, Enright gave a complicated psychological profile. Through the female lens, grief over the death of a beloved family member was vividly captured. Grief gradually changed to pain and, eventually, anger. Anger and frustration propelled the story of her brother. Veronica’s profile showed a mind that was set loose by both tragedy and obsession with the past. The prominence of Veronica’s voice, however, stymied the voices of the other family members. It was only through her that we get to examine her siblings. They all came across as unlikeable because Veronica herself dislike them. There was no attempt at evenhandedness. Even Liam felt ephemeral because his psychological profile was projected only through what Veronica witnessed.

“And what amazes me as I hit the motorway is not the fact that everyone loses someone but that everybody loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy – and we all do it, all the peole beetling along between the white lines, merging, converging, overtaking. We each love someone even when they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this that I can see.”

~ Anne Enright, The Gathering

There is a certain level of lyricism that characterizes many a work of Irish literature. It was palpable that Enright’s prose also possessed this lyrical quality; it came across in The Gathering. It enhanced and complimented the better facets of the story. There was a lightness to the prose that diminished the overwhelmingly heavy and dark subjects the book dealt with. Enright’s mastery of language was scintillating to read. With the perfect mix of beauty and melancholy, Enright’s prose and astute storytelling made the story flourish. The story did unspool slowly but the immersive writing made up for it.

The Gathering is an evocative story that examines grief and the guilt that inevitably comes along with it. In her Booker Prize-winning masterpiece, Enright vividly captured how grief affects everything that is before us, how it blurs our memories of the past, and how it alters the present, even just for a brief period of time. Our deep love and devotion to a loved one can distort our memory. The novel covers a vast ground, including pedophilia, substance abuse, mental health, the complications and inaccuracies of memory, trauma, and family dynamics. There also lay hope in the end that redeemed the unforgiving dive into the past. These are all familiar terrain that was capably woven together by Enright’s evocative and lyrical prose into a lush tapestry.

“And, in fact, this is the tale that I would love to write: history is such a romantic place, with its jarveys and urchins and side-buttoned boots. If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head.”

Ratings

59%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 16%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

It was back in early 2019 when I first encountered Anne Enright and her novel, The Gathering. I didn’t have any iota on what the book was about or who Anne Enright was. The only thing that convinced me to buy the book was the line “Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2007” prominently featured on the book’s cover; by then, I have a growing interest in works that won prestigious literary awards such as the Booker and the Pulitzer Prizes. Over William Goding’s Rites of Passage, I picked The Gathering as part of my February 2021 Booker Prize Month. The novel’s premise is simple enough, at least on the surface. We have a huge Irish Catholic family who gathered in Dublin following the demise of the family black sheep, Liam. He was Veronica’s closest and favorite sibling and his death set into motion a dive into memory in order to make sense of Liam’s death. I do admire Enright’s mastery of the language, she made the story flourish with her immersive prose. However, the story didn’t engage me as much as I wanted to; I found it predictable. There was something missing. It was still a good albeit middling read; it was just not as astounding as I hoped it would be.

Book Specs

Author: Anne Enright
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 260
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him – although that certainly helped – it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968. His sister Veronica was there then, as she is now: keeping the idea man company, just for another little while.

The Gathering is a family epic, condensed and clarified through the remarkable lens of Anne Enright’s unblinking eye. It is also a sexual history: tracing the line of hurt and redemption through three generations – starting with the grandmother, Ada Merriman – showing how memories warp and family secrets fester. This is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

The Gathering sends fresh blood through the Irish literary tradition, combing the lyricism of the old with the shock of the new. As in all Anne Enright’s work, fiction and non-fiction, this is a book of daring, wit and insight: her distinctive intelligence twisting the world a fraction, and giving back to us in a new and unforgettable light.

About the Author

Anne Teresa Enright was born on October 11, 1962, in Dublin, Ireland. Enright was educated at St. Louis High School, Rathmines. She managed to win a scholarship to Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. For two years, she studied International Baccalaureate before returning to Dublin. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. A Chevening scholar, she completed her Masters of Arts degree at the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Course. She studied under esteemed writers Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, Enright worked for RTE in Dublin, first as a producer for the program Nighthawks for four years, and in children’s programming for two years. She left television after a breakdown and pursued writing as a full-time career.

Enright’s interest in writing began after receiving a typewriter for her 21st birthday. In 1991, she published her first work, The Portable Virgin, which is a short story collection. For her first work, she won the 1991 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. She would publish two more short story collections, Taking Pictures in 2008 and Yesterday’s Weather in 2009. In 1995, Enright published her first novel, The Wig My Father Wore. Her second novel, What Are You Like (2000), was shortlisted for the Whitbread Awards. Her fourth novel, The Gathering (2007), was also a critical success, winning the 2007 Booker Prize for Fiction. It was also named the Irish Novel of the Year for 2008. The Forgotten Waltz (2011) won the 2012 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was also shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her latest novel, Actress, was published in 2020.

Enright’s works have been published in various prominent publications such as The New Yorker, London Review of Books, The Dublin Review, The Irish Times, The Guardian, Granta, and The Paris Review. In 2010, she was named as a Fellow at the Royal Society of Literature. Enright was also appointed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as the first Laureate for Irish Fiction in 2015. Starting in the 2018-2019 academic year, she has taken up a teaching position at University College Dublin’s School of English.

Enright is married to Martin Murphy. They have two children.