The Past Is Not a Happy Place

The Gatheringby By Anne EnrightBlack Cat. 272p $14 (paperback)
Over a century ago, in 1905, an unknown young writer named James Joyce was having a hard time finding a publisher for Dubliners, his bitter collection of tales about the home town he had already left (physically, at least) for good. Shortly before this, in a famous letter to his lover, Nora Barnacle, Joyce had written: “My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity—home, the recognised virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrine. How could I like the idea of home?... When I looked on [my mother’s] face as she lay in the coffin—a face grey and wasted with cancer—I understood that I was looking on the face of a victim, and I cursed the system which had made her victim.”

Anne Enright’s protagonist and narrator, Veronica Hegarty, clearly has much in common with Joyce, even if by the end of The Gathering she seems unable to wield the classic Joycean weapons of silence, exile and cunning—though she tries. Enright, whose novel won the 2007 Man Booker prize and £50,000 from the old colonialist oppressor, presents a vision of (mostly suburban) Dublin that is as cold, bleak and miserable as anything in Joyce. Veronica is the seventh child of the dozen born to “Mammy” and her dreadful, unnamed, now dead husband. Oh, and there were also seven miscarriages, a dead infant and a middle-aged daughter lost to pancreatic cancer. The Hegartys gather for that ultimate Irish ritual, a wake, before burying another adult sibling, Liam, a sweet, feckless alcoholic who drowned himself off Brighton, and whose body Veronica has gone to reclaim and transport back over all the bureaucratic hurdles to that inevitable place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Veronica has always thought of Liam (11 months older) as her twin; and both during and after her somber mission she dives into a twisty round of memories, conjectures and fantasies about him and about Hegarty family history, which has just turned another painful corner. Veronica, 39, is a currently unemployed mother of two girls; and at least one critic has questioned whether her humdrum past as a home-furnishings journalist could ever jibe with the dark, relentless brilliance of her voice here. In any event, she spins her musings back to 1925, to Ada Merriman, her grandmother and the Hegarty matriarch, an orphan who might also have a been a rescued prostitute and whose affections may have vacillated between her husband, Charlie Spillane, and her admirer, Lambert Nugent. Nugent may also (Veronica imagines) have been a bookie and Ada’s lover in midlife; but one thing she knows for sure: as an eight-year-old girl she stumbled onto Nugent sexually abusing Liam—who may or may not have been doomed forever as a result.

At all events, the blue-eyed, cold-hearted, sharp-tongued, unforgiving, irreligious (save for Ernest, the defrocked priest-brother) Hegarty clan has come together; and it is not a pretty sight. Seventy-year-old Mammy is dotty, if not demented. (What ever drove her and her husband into those lunatic 19 pregnancies? It certainly wasn’t love. But then, as this sardonic observer sees it, who knows why anybody does anything? Why is Ernest still celibate? Why, for that matter, doesn’t Veronica divorce her businessman husband Tom, whose aggressive “love” for her feels like pure hatred?) The other brothers and sisters, apart from the mysterious, absent Alice, hardly know what to make of one another. They have no pleasant times to recall (the elder siblings dished out beatings to the younger ones when their father no longer could). Indeed, they cannot even agree on what really happened at major moments of their common past, such as the trip to the lunatic asylum where poor Uncle Bernard spent his days. (Needless to say, the kids were not allowed to see him.) They are constantly complaining about and sniping at one another—“Christmas in Hades,” Veronica calls it.

Still, the grandchildren, godless and spoiled in their little bourgeois nuclear families, appear to be doing fine; and there is even an out-of-the-blue appearance at the wake of two strangers, whose story may or may not put a nearly redemptive spin on the Hegarty saga. Finally, what are we to make of Veronica’s anxious, ambivalent farewell, in which she talks about “falling into my own life”? Well, that’s what fiction is for, to keep you guessing.

One thing is beyond dispute: the star of this dysfunctional show is Veronica herself (whose very name destines her to wipe the bloody face of suffering, without necessarily producing a wonder-working image). Her acerbic tongue, her wit and unrelenting, probing eye cut through everyone’s flesh, including her own (she calls herself “a bitch”): “Back in Belfield,” runs a typical caustic riff, “my best friend Deirdre Moloney had just been thrown out by her mother for nothing at all: a very low-key sort of girl, she’d only ever had sex twice. Children were being chucked out all over Dublin. All our parents were mad, in those days. There was something about just the smell of us growing up that drove them completely insane.” (A warning to American readers: Veronica’s often foul-mouthed eloquence draws on all sorts of English and Anglo-Irish slang, with words like gobdaw, hames, chunters, ming, foothering, gurrier, strumpery and even an occasional phrase in Irish.) A trip to Dublin, Jonathan Swift would remind us, can be like a weird anthropological expedition.

James Joyce, for one, would understand. The persona most glaringly absent from the pages of Dubliners-—that of a strong, keen, intelligent woman—has taken over here. Veronica is like Joyce’s hard-bitten, invisible male narrator, but without the genteel euphemisms (e.g., “a drop taken” for blind drunk) or the exploration of a character’s psyche through the free indirect style. Such authorial omniscience is passé, but the utterly honest passion and grief and regret that burns in The Gathering is a fair substitute for it.

Few people expected Enright to win the Booker Prize. Starting in 1991, she had written four well-received novels, but nothing quite as startlingly good as this. Now, at age 45, she has definitely arrived, and without, like James Aloysius Joyce, having to wait nine years for a publisher brave enough to print her unsparing account of the tormented souls in her native city.

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