April 29, 2008

Book review: "The Gathering," by Anne Enright

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The Gathering, by Anne Enright
The Gathering
By Anne Enright
Black Cat / Grove/Atlantic / ISBN: 978-0-8021-7039-2

As a book critic, I of course try to steer clear of any information I can about a book I'm about to review, until I'm done with the book myself and have already made up my mind about what I thought; so imagine my surprise, then, when finally checking out what others had to say about today's book in question, Anne Enright's The Gathering, and seeing so many people call it an unrelentingly dour and grim tale. Because I hadn't thought of it that way at all when actually reading it, but rather as witty, lively, and with a precise control over the English language; it wasn't until afterwards that I stopped and realized, as the Guardian UK most famously put it, that the book actually concerns an "alcoholic suicide, blank-eyed paedophile, violent father, vacant mother and irritatingly smug priest, not to mention its scenes of bad sex, self-harm, a funless wake and 5am grief-stricken howling." Oh yeah, that's right, I thought after seeing so many people mention it; and how remarkable that it never even occurred to me at the time, how remarkable that the book should be that good. No wonder it went on to win what many consider the most prestigious literary award on the planet last year. No wonder.

Because yes, ladies and gentlemen, the day is finally here; after nine months of following the contest, of tracking down and reviewing as many of the nominees as I could*, the day has finally arrived to review the winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, given out each year to what a jury of peers believes is the best novel of the last twelve months to be written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or Ireland. And indeed, Enright is in fact Irish, only the fifth Irish author in the history of the Booker to win the prize; and as you can tell from what's already been mentioned, it doesn't get much more stereotypically Irish on the surface than with The Gathering's plotline, fascinated as it is with drunken funerals, brawling families, weepy suicidal artists, and deceptively sexy pale middle-aged Gaelic women having bizarre Alice-Sebold style breakdowns. Erin go Bragh, motherf-cker!

The story of one of those huge Irish Catholic families (twelve siblings altogether, nine of whom are still alive at the time of our tale), The Gathering narratively centers around 38-year-old Veronica, somewhere in the middle of the sibling chain, a frazzled but not altogether unhappy wife and mother who nonetheless has been recently having some marital problems and drinking more than she's happy with. The reason for the eponymous gathering, then, is the drowning suicide of the black sheep of the family, the manipulative and charming loser Liam, who for years has been living right on the edge of civilized society (and his family's patience) until finally delving underneath for good while spending some time in Brighton (on the southern coast of England, a day trip from Dublin where the rest of the story takes place). Because of various complicated factors, it is Veronica who must travel to Brighton in order to identify and claim Liam's body; the book basically follows her through that journey and on through the funeral itself, peeking in her head and watching her attitudes about all the things going on, watching her fumble through her hazy memories and try to determine if there might be one single childhood event that can somehow explain how Liam eventually came to be.

In fact, I find it a fortuitous coincidence that I just happened to read The Gathering in the same exact week I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway for the first time as well; because when all is said and done, both authors are basically attempting the same thing, to let us literally crawl inside their main protagonists' heads and follow along with their thoughts stream-of-consciousness style. In this, then, Enright's book helps clarify a point I wanted to make in my original Dalloway essay, but wasn't sure how to actually verbalize until now; that although Woolf's original 1925 literary experiment should definitely still be admired for what it tries to accomplish, it's also true that we as a global culture have now had 80 years to expand and improve on those early rough Modernist experiments, with results these days that are just so much better than any of those trailblazers could've ever achieved back then. Because really, if you want to describe Enright's personal writing style, and explain a little about why people go so nuts for her work, just think of stream-of-consciousness done exactly and perfectly right -- no cruddy head-scratching abstraction, no pretentious "artsy for artsy's sake" run-on sentences, no even calling undue attention to itself, but rather a confident and solid style that seems to somehow slip right up into our hero's brain without either her or us noticing.

Because that's the thing -- it's a fascinating story, really fascinating, but the way it's told to us is by Veronica simply remembering little bits and pieces of it here and there, by her slowly revealing her opinion and attitudes about certain relatives and events in a piecemeal fashion. The Gathering is a story as we more often hear stories in real life, not as a traditional sit-down A-to-B-to-C uninterrupted tale, but rather as a loose collection of scraps and trails, with the narrator themselves sometimes remembering situations wrongly, sometimes deliberately lying to us. That's what makes the whole childhood aspect of this plot so intriguing, after all, is because Veronica herself admits that her memories of it all are so spotty, that sometimes she thinks she might be filling in the blanks in a certain false way deliberately, because in her heart that's what she really wants the situation to have been. Was Liam sexually abused as a kid? Was she as well, and now has only repressed memories of it all? Or does she want an easy excuse for herself as to why Liam ended up the way he did as an adult, and a lazy justification for her growing coldness to her husband? Was her brother simply a hustler, when all is said and done? Could she and the other siblings have done more, or was he simply doomed to have the kind of romantically tragic life that he did?

Enright takes on all these questions in The Gathering, and a whole lot more; and like I said, by telling the entire story through the filter of this very human, very flawed creature at its center, it makes us as the reader as confused about the objective "truth" as Veronica is herself. And that ultimately is maybe Enright's biggest lesson here -- that no matter what the trauma, no matter what dark things may or may not have occurred in our lives that we may or may not remember, it is how we perceive those things and react to them that is ultimately the only important thing. If Veronica chooses to be a victim, then that's what she's going to be, regardless of whether or not she actually was the victim of something in her past; if she chooses not to be, she suddenly isn't, even if she actually was abused as a kid and by all rights should be a victim. In a way it's actually the opposite of what we think of when we think of traditional Irish stories, because Enright is arguing that all of us are ultimately in charge of our own fates; it's for such reasons, like I said, that I ended up not really thinking of this novel as a typical gloomy Irish story when actually reading it, despite it sharing so many surface-level qualities.

And then of course no discussion of The Gathering is complete without a mention of Enright's mastery over the English language, a detail that both assured its nomination in the first place and that this year guaranteed its win over all those other fey little pointless nominees. I don't like quoting from books in my reviews, in that I feel quotes without context rarely ever convey the full power of why you wanted to quote them in the first place; that said, here is a particularly beautiful passage from the book that struck me quite powerfully, a paragraph that not only nicely explains what is always the most annoying thing about Liam-black-sheep types, but also is indicative of what concerning Enright's writing style I love so much...

"The problem with Liam was never something big. The problem with Liam was always a hundred small things. He had cigarettes but no matches, did I have matches? Yes, but the match breaks, the match doesn't strike, he can't light these cheap Albanian trash matches. Do I have a lighter? F-ck, he has split the matches. Why don't I have a lighter? He goes to find a lighter, rattling all the drawers in the kitchen. He walks out, leaving the back door open. He comes in the front door twenty minutes later with a lighter he found on the street -- lying just outside the house actually -- except that it is wet. He lights the oven from the pilot and lights his cigarette from the oven and burns his hand and after he has put his hand under the tap for a while he fusses in the cupboard for a baking tin and he puts the lighter -- a cheap, plastic lighter -- he actually puts it in the oven, and when I scream at him he shouts right back at me and there is a tussle at the oven door. After which, there is an hour of sulking because I do not trust him to dry a lighter in the oven without burning the house down. And after the sulk comes The Discussion."

Anyone who's ever had to deal with a person like this themselves will now be bitterly laughing and nodding their heads; and this is what I mean by how great Enright is, that she's able to convey this story with so much insight and dark humor and beauty, and do it on page after page after page like she does. It's one of those few books each year that create a bridge between people like me and the traditional academic community -- a book that needs a lot of intelligence and education to be written the way it is, and especially a sincere love for the delicacies of language, yet has this really compelling storyline driving it all, making it at a certain point a legitimately thrilling page-turner, as you get more and more interested in what's going to finally happen at this family gathering at the end. Like I said, it's no wonder that it won last year's Booker, especially given the overall weak slate of contenders in 2007; and not only that, but it's one of those books that makes you cheer when it wins the Booker, an incredibly smart but quiet kind of manuscript that usually gets overlooked at award time, a novel which had only sold a grand total of 3,500 copies in the entire UK before winning. It's for all of these reasons and more that today The Gathering becomes the very first book of 2008 to receive a perfect 10 at CCLaP, and why I so highly recommend that you pick it up yourself when you get the chance.

Out of 10:
Story: 10
Characters: 10
Style: 10
Overall: 10

Read even more about The Gathering: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And for those who are curious, here are links to the other five Booker nominees from last year that I ended up reading and reviewing: Consolation, by Michael Redhill; Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones; On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid; and The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:24 PM, April 29, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |