Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Veronica Hegarty is thirty-nine. She is one of twelve siblings in an Irish family. Her brother Liam has committed suicide by walking into the ocean in the English resort town of Brighton. Three details of his death are important to her. He wore a yellow raincoat. She believes this is because he wanted his body to be found. He was not wearing socks or underwear. She attributes this to his concern about his appearance. They must have been dirty. His pockets were filled with rocks. He wanted to die.

Liam was an alcoholic. The family called him a “messer.” He did things deliberately to aggravate people. He treated his women poorly. He was depressed. Veronica spends most of the book wandering at night, trying to reconstruct the past from childhood memories, to try to determine what lead to Liam’s tragedy. Her recollection contains clues that are almost indistinguishable from the muck of half-truths and outright fabrications from which they are dredged. She finally settles on a vaguely recalled childhood memory when she thought she witnessed sexual abuse of her brother by a shadowy acquaintance of her grandparents.

Veronica is an unreliable narrator, but she is the only one who has the knowledge and the will to tell the story. Her recounting is stream of consciousness, which is true to the way the mind works when emotional involvement and imperfect memory cloud revelation. The narrative jerks back and forth in time and follows a long and winding road to its conclusion. By the time the secret is revealed, I am weary of the journey.

People have told me that they do not like stories told in the first person present voice. I’ve always wondered why, because its immediacy makes it the most compelling point of view in the oral tradition. This book answered the question for me. I believe it is neither the person nor the tense that alienates readers, but the stream of consciousness style employed by writers of literature who use first person present. It traps the story in digressions and dead ends and hides the conclusion behind a pall of toxic fog.


Amanda said...

Okay so I'm going to sound like a total ignoramous here, but I get really irritated with sad drunken Irish stories. Can't anyone tell stories about Irish people that don't involve them being drunk, sad, Catholic, or violent? I honestly have never read one, and I really want to. Right now, each time I see a book or a TV series or a movie about Irish families or communities, I automatically shy away from it because they're always about the same thing. It drives me nuts. I imagine there are some Irish people in the world who aren't religious fanatics, violent gangsters, sad miserable depressed people living off potatoes, and/or drunk all the time. It'd be nice to hear from them. I understand there's been some miserable history in Ireland, but there HAS to be something MORE. Please.

Unknown said...

Darby O'Gill and the Little People? Lots of fairy tales that are about Irishman who aren't drunk (although some of them ARE drunk, notably), but I don't know if that counts. Wait 20 years and it will change - after the 'Celtic Tiger' period, Ireland is no longer entirely defined by it's being torn apart by religion, Britain, and it's geographic distance from the rest of Europe. Or you could read How the Irish Saved Civilization. And, besides, Oscar Wilde was Irish, and so was Bram Stoker. Or, Oliver Goldsmith, who wrote the Vicar of Wakefield. But all their books, I believe, were admittedly about England.
Honestly, though, it sould e noted that the reason that the Irish write so many famous sad novels, is that the Irish more or less beat the English to the trend of writing about normal people instead of rich people, and normal Irish people were poor, miserable, and oppressed, more or less, for a very long time. In the 19th century, I think there were Irish novels that were about the rich anglican masters in Ireland, that mostly just took the Irish poor as pastoral scenery, and these were more conventionally happy books. But, I've never read them, and they're largely forgotten, I believe.