The Dysfunction Of Irish Families

The Gathering, by Anne Enright
I wasn’t familiar with Enright’s previous work when I bought this book; I must confess I bought it because it won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, always looking for another writer’s work to fall in love with. Did I fall in love with The Gathering? It’s a close call, but no. Still, that doesn’t color my appreciation for what Enright does here.
I continue to be uncomfortable with Irish literature, and this book may have given me a couple of clues as to why. There’s not much to give away here, so let me get to it. Liam Hegarty, one of twelve children of that family has just died—a suicide. The book is a slowly fructifying look at the day of Liam’s funeral—and into the family’s past—through the eyes of Liam’s closest sibling, Veronica.
The usual Irish plums are here: a father who turns alcoholic violence onto his family. A love/hate relationship with religion. A lyrical transcendence of all that is dark in Irish life through emotion and language. The lovably cantankerous Irish personality. What’s new here is the cause of Liam’s death: a different, more heinous violence turned against him in childhood, a violence that touches into the lives of the other family members and darkens all their lives.
As the funeral day approaches, Veronica attempts to plumb Liam’s psyche in an attempt to understand why he’s committed suicide. Liam has had the habit of drinking too deeply from his cups, but he’s been generally regarded as a happy but somewhat flaky family member. Surely, Veronica thinks, the suicide is Liam’s attempt to expose something about this dark act from his childhood. In oder to look deeper, Veronica must plumb the lives of all her family, particularly that of Ada, their grandmother.
A person peripheral to the family, Lamb Nugent, Ada’s landlord, enters the picture, and becomes the story’s antagonist, the catalyst for the family’s dysfunction. Would the family be this loose-jointed if not for Nugent? Sure. But the sort of hurt Lamb inflicted on the family certainly amplifies the Hegartys’ angst.
Enright textures this large family through the vehicle of Veronica, pushing most of them into the background such that the hum of their discontent amplifies Veronica’s. This is a skill only the most deft of writers can manage. Most of the children are alcoholics or, as Veronica might put it, shag-aholics, resorting to drink or sex to buffer their emotional pain. Veronica, as it turns out, resorts to both, and in the process, alienates herself from her husband and children.

Another technique Enright uses with great deftness is assaying memory. Clearly, each child of the family is traumatized by Nugent’s actions; but what exactly do they remember of it? Veronica carries the ball here for the others, admitting to memories, half-memories, illusory extensions of memory, as can only happen to children unfamiliar with life’s gray edges.
Enright exposes Veronica thoughts to the reader in a Joycean manner, changing tense, leaping from memory to memory, person to person, event to event. It seems to this reader that the author’s strategy here is to portray an arguably typical Irish family through a foggy jumble of emotions. I’m not one to proclaim the truth of Irish life, but this seems to be a consistent thread through the Irish literature I’ve read.
And this seems to be the source of my own discontent with Irish writing: the troubled personality that reaches into its dark deeps and proclaiming it with poetic sweetness, as if that might wash the dark away. Also, the seeming compulsion to do Joyce one better bothers me a bit in Irish writing, as those techniques become overly cute. Still, Enright is true to this facet of the Irish spirit, I think, and she depicts her characters with remarkable dexterity. Does she deserve the Booker? Despite my problems with Irish writing, I have to admit: yes.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

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