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Sunday Book Review: The Gathering, by Anne Enright

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The Gathering, by the Irish writer Anne Enright, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for a writer who is “a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.”Enright’s win was a long shot; although she’s published plenty, she isn’t one of the usual suspects, like Ian McEwen or J.M. Coetzee, who tend to pop up on the Booker shortlist regularly. The Booker Prize can make an author. Enright is now on a world tour that one suspects her publishers didn’t plan until she won.

The Gathering is a simple story, narrated by a middle-aged woman named Veronica, who begins: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.” Veronica’s brother, Liam, her closest sibling among 10, has died; she must go from Dublin to Brighton, England, to collect his body. Liam’s death leads Veronica to a lengthy meditation on what long-ago, half-remembered events may have led to Liam’s death and shadowed her own life. Her assured cadence belies her confusion about what really did happened in her childhood, and makes for 261 compelling pages.

Veronica is a reliable narrator who traces her shaky memories along with the untruths her parents and grandparents have sustained for reasons she discovers as she tells her story. The sins of the fathers haunt Veronica; she is grieving, we learn, not just for Liam, but for her own lost soul. In the imprint of his suffering, she discovers the hard truth about her own sadness.

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Enright’s tone in The Gathering is cool and relentlessly honest. In her journey of revelation, Veronica spares no one, and her observations are both painfully clear-eyed and nastily funny. This is not the whimsical Dublin of Paddy Doyle, nor the grim but lace-edged world of William Trevor. The Gathering is a closer relative to James Joyce’s pitiless view of how his beloved country killed and ate its young.

All that said, The Gathering is not depressing to read, and has its own humor. Enright deserves applause for taking on one Irish family’s sadness without portraying them as pitiable victims.

Photo from GroveAtlantic Press.