The recent debate over the Booker Prize’s perceived shift away from the literary and towards the ‘readable’ overlooks a variety of important facts. The first, of course, is that one judge, in an off-hand comment, suggested that there is no point awarding a novel that no one will read—a comment that, taken at face value, seems to be eminently true.
The other important fact is that many of the recent winners have been big, complicated novels dealing with big, complicated ideas. Enright’s The Gathering is no exception.
The eponymous gathering is that of a large Irish Catholic family. Liam, the younger brother of our narrator Veronica, has died of an alcoholic overdose, and the family has come to mourn. As the family struggle to come to terms with this death, Veronica finds herself attempting to piece together just why Liam might have taken his own life.
It’s hard not to describe The Gathering without it sounding like a litany of Irish literature clichés: Catholicism, families, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and depression all get a good workout. But Enright takes those themes and turns them on their head with the inclusion of a rather interesting take on memory and narration. It’s also to Enright’s credit that, despite the horrific and depressing nature of this tale, I didn’t want to top myself by the end.
There are two themes at the heart of this novel: family, and memory. As Veronica tries desperately to understand how and why Liam’s life came to suicide, she begins to remember her childhood, growing up with her many brothers and sisters. She also tries to piece together how she became so unhappily married—she has been unable to sleep with her husband (both metaphorically and literally) since Liam died. All of a sudden, she cannot quite believe how her life came to be nothing more than a mother and wife, driving a fancy car, married to a man who seems to spend all his time in the office, away from his wife and two daughters.
In an even greater feat of memory, Veronica imagines/remembers her mother and her grandmother’s lives, too. The recurring theme in all three lives is the way in which women seem to been driven mad by the responsibilities placed on them by simply having a family. As though these tales are handed down from woman to woman, Veronica finds herself reliving the pains of her grandmother’s lost love, of her mother’s miscarriages. Each and every woman seems to find herself battered and bruised simply by having to adhere to the conventions required of the women of their time.
Veronica admits her own failings as a storyteller/narrator about halfway through the novel. She knows there is something that probably caused Liam’s unhappiness, but has been unwilling to remember it. Perhaps because she feels guilty, or perhaps not, but she has chosen to forget that Liam was sexually assaulted by an uncle when they were children. Though it is not spelt out, it is heavily implied that this incident led to Liam’s hedonistic life of drinking and debauchery. The implicit judgement—that sexual abuse is not a one-off case of assault—is horrific, and should give us all cause to think.
The two warring elements of this novel—the investigation of the twentieth-century Irish family, and the construction of a story from imperfect human memory—come together perfectly, highlighting Enright’s gifts as both storyteller and examiner of the human condition. For anyone sceptical of the Booker’s ability to find classics, try The Gathering.