Bookshelf – The Gathering, Anne Enright

Some people carry so much drag and ache and dread that they cannot separate the weight from themselves. They are what they suffer.

The fate of these tormented beings, thinks Veronica Hegarty as she laments the death of her brother, Liam, older by only eleven months and drowned by his own hand in the cold of the English Channel, is imprinted in their bones.

“History is biological, that’s what I think,” says Veronica as her family gathers in Dublin for Liam’s wake. “What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.”

What Liam bore, etched into his marrow, was the scar of a terrible incident that befell him when he was nine, a moment witnessed by Veronica. Liam lives with pain, Veronica with shame. “After a lifetime of spreading the hurt around,” she thinks, “(Liam) managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty.”

Veronica feels guilt for her escape from the claustrophobic environment of a family of a dozen children, a mother vanishing into herself, and a rough-cut father. She made it to the middle class. Liam, her soulmate, didn’t. He drank and practiced enough general fecklessness to earn labels like gurrier, messer, and thug from even his siblings.

Liam’s death unleashes not only Veronica’s memories of what happened that fateful day in her grandmother’s house, but also brings to the boil long-simmering dissatisfactions with her own “normal” life – materially rich, emotionally impoverished.

“The Gathering” asks some patience of the reader. Veronica, seeking to make sense of her brother’s death, hopscotches through the calendar — her grandmother’s time, her own childhood, the present, when she is 39. Hard things happen, and both their overhang and portent infuse the story with a heaviness, but it is tolerable because nothing occurs in the story that couldn’t occur to anyone at any time in real life. It is the heaviness of being human.

Enright is a masterful writer and a pleasure to read. The narration is almost elegiac, but also precise and not at all wimpy. When, for example, Veronica speaks of her jumbled sex life, Enright endows her with schoolyard language that shocks with directness. In all, “The Gathering” is as complicated and mysterious as life itself, and just as rewarding.

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