The Gathering by Ann Enright

I hated this book.  HATED it.  I don’t like to leave a book unfinished but, had this not been a book club book, I would have dropped this story like a hot potato.  (Ok, maybe that’s a bad metaphor, since it’s set in Ireland…)

This novel is the first person account of unreliable narrator Veronica, one of a half dozen or more offspring of the Haggerty clan.  The storyline revolves unevenly around the death and funeral of brother Liam, who was an alcoholic no-account fellow for much of his life, and who committed suicide by walking into the ocean with stones in his pockets.  (Very Virginia Woolfe of him.)

Veronica is a writer/stay at home mother in Ireland.  She and her husband have two daughters and, I think, some money.  Veronica spends her days sleeping and her nights writing and roaming about the house, avoiding sleeping (in all senses of the word) with her husband.  The news of her brother’s death/suicide unbalances her, and the story she relates reflects that lack of balance.  The tales she spins include a (fictionalized/imagined) account of her maternal grandmother’s first meeting with the man who became her grandfather, as well as the grandmother’s first meeting with the man who (spoiler) sexually abused Liam and, perhaps, Veronica during a childhood stay with the grandmother.  She spirals in and out of time – the action of the story is non-linear, so a scene from childhood may occur just after a vignette about the grandmother.

Several of the reviews I read while trying to make sense of the book described the work as ‘fleshly,’ based upon Enright’s detailed descriptions of the feelings both of and in her body.  While the work is grounded in that way, I had a hard time getting a bead on the story, not so much ‘what’s going on here‘ (although there was some of that) as ‘what am I supposed to be getting out of this?’

Veronica’s mother exemplifies the narrative slipperiness of this story.  Mrs. Haggerty is a woman who has multiple living children, and even more lost before or after birth, who shuffles through life apparently unable (or perhaps unwilling) to remember this daughter’s name.  Mr. Haggerty is described as a man who loved his wife, but not enough to stop having sex with her, such that she kept getting pregnant and having, and often losing, children.  There’s a sense that this constant creation of life has drained the vitality from Mrs. Haggerty.  She’s become a shuffling shell in a padded housecoat, reminiscent of Mrs. Compson.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll take Faulker over this any day…

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