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Anne Enright won the famous Booker Prize for The Gathering. For reasons that I don’t recall I chose not to read it until I heard Enright interviewed on the BBC World Book Club. It’s a delightful recording and I encourage you to listen to it. It was enough for me (read my husband) to source the book through the Trondheim library and read it in 3 days.
Set in Dublin, Ireland in the 1980s, the novel follows a family of 2 Catholic parents and their 12 children, stretching back to the 1960s to a pivotal period in the lives of protagonist Veronica and brother Liam. Their mother had a prodigious 19 pregnancies (7 miscarriages) and Veronica is scornful of her father for not showing restraint in the bedroom. Veronica also stretches into the unknown past and creates a history for her grandmother, Ada, without many facts but it’s entertaining to read.
My brother Liam loved birds and, like all boys, he loved the bones of dead animals. I have no sons myself, so when I pass any small skull or skeleton I hesitate and think of him, how he admired their intricacies. A magpie’s ancient arms coming through the mess of feathers; stubby and light and clean. That is the word we use about bones: Clean
Protagonist Veronica is the first person narrator. She is the same age as I am now, 39, and when relating memories of her childhood she is unreliable.
Here’s me eating Ada’s rubber bathing hat whose famous yellow flowers appeared in my nappy the next day. Though, of course, it must have been Kitty’s nappy – hardly mine, at the age of three. Ada shouting for Charlie, who looked over her shoulder and said, ‘Where did we get such a clever girl? ‘
Of course I was jealous of my little sister, but I had a peculiar, fierce love for her too. It is not surprising that I steal her memories for my own. Though no man, I now realise, ever put his hand into a dirty nappy, as I can see Charlie doing in my mind’s eye, to pull out a posy of shitty yellow flowers.
I think that fallible memory is very realistic. I’ve always been suspicious of all knowing narrators. It’s impossible to trust memories, just look at studies of the reliability of witnesses of violent crime. The memory distorts and invents. Veronica’s narration feels realistic to me.
Veronica is angry. Angry with her brother Liam for many things, with her husband for treating her and their 2 children as being in the way, angry with her mother for many reasons. Veronica is an entertaining narrator, in spite of her anger. Enright brings a lot of comic relief to the novel through the retelling of maybe/maybe not memories of Veronica as a child.
Enright included all sorts of interesting observations that felt true, like describing a hug from her lapsed priest brother as not including her breasts. Instantly the reader knows what she’s talking about. I found the dialogue interesting to read because of the contrast to the narration style. The narration is in typical English used by novelists but the dialogue is in colloquial Irish-English and contains all sorts of strange but understandable idioms that add to the richness of the story. She is an empathetic writer with a kind word to say for everyone. Veronica talks about sex a lot, not just her own but a surprising amount about the sex life she imagined for her grandmother and her grandmother’s friend, the sexual predator.
In her interview on the BBC, Enright talked about being shocked by the revelations of sexual abuse that rocked Ireland in the 1980s. I remember the same in Australia and I can understand how this inspired her novel.
It’s a good book and I’m glad that I read it, especially while I’m at the same life stage as Veronica but thankfully my life is happier and I’m not angry!
This review in The Guardian says what I have failed to say!
Veronica reminds us that she is named for the saint who wiped Christ’s face on his way to the cross, producing his image “on her tea towel”, a nun tells her – this was “the first ever photograph”. Veronica mentions, characteristically deadpan, that she still thinks of the saint whenever she’s given a moist towel after a Chinese meal. It’s a joy to be with a book that combines the exalted and the profane so handily, that crafts compulsive disclosure until it can dart from tenderness to anger, to dry humour, to the anguish that drums through the narrative. Like many good protagonists, Veronica notices things, maybe notices too much: makes pictures helplessly as she stops sleeping with her husband, fails to love her daughters and her mother as she should, resents her family and grieves for her unforgivable brother.