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When I spotted this book, The Gathering, winner of the 2007 Booker Prize I thought I'd give it a go. The main story line is about a large Irish family gathering as one of their brothers has died.
A bit about
Veronica is the main protagonist. Her brother Liam has died and it's looking like a suicide, wading out in to the sea at Brighton with stones in his pocket. Veronica feels like she needs to confess her whole life time of misdeeds to make herself feel better about Liam's death. She starts the year she was eight, living in her grandmother's house. She describes the way her grandparents met, with a mysterious male friend who sits on the shadow of their relationship and torments Veronica's memories. Veronica herself is heading in to a meltdown, possibly started by Liam's death but also deep rooted and making her question her own life and marriage. She's not happy and will try to drink her way out of the problem.
I was really disappointed by this book and surprised it won such a significant prize. I felt little sympathy for the characters, didn't feel I got to know any of them very well and was constantly frustrated by the narrator's need to keep going over the same ground, rehashing the scenes from her childhood which she admits herself are unreliable memories.
The Kindle version is available for just over £4 or £6,29 for a paperback, obviously winning the prize back in 2007 has kept the price of this book up there.
I felt frustrated by this book and kept reading even though I was not enjoying it, waiting for something interesting to happen I suppose. There was a small surprise at the end but again it really wasn't presented very well so lost the impact it could have had. I would not recommend this book, it did not have enough in it for me although the potential of the story was huge from the offset.
The Gathering is one of those books with a haunting cover and a grey blurb, promising something intangible and short enough to bear repeating here. "The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn't the drink that killed him.... It was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother's house, in the winter of 1968".
Had I written this description, the actual gathering of the family might not have featured, being so late and incomplete within the story as to be of less consequence than other events. I would perhaps instead tell you that this is the story of Veronica Hegarty, coming to terms with her grief and facing up to her memories. This is not an easy book to read; relating to a large family and painful problems.
I imagine Veronica as a tragic heroine, staring out onto the grey Irish sea from a cliff top, pale and steely. For all the wrong reasons my mind paints her as a colder, more washed and worn Samantha Janus, but then this would be entirely in keeping with the author's description.
The large family mentioned begin as a focal point of the book, yet for all intensive purposes there might only be two other siblings for her. Looking back on her past from her present situation as wife and mother, she recalls being sent to live with her grandmother, Ada along with her sister Kitty and her brother Liam. Being close in age, Liam and Veronica are friends as much as siblings and aside from this revelation I struggled to identify with her.
If you come from a large Irish family, perhaps the book will strike a chord. From my perspective, the slightly frosty way Veronica viewed her family made her seem like an outsider looking in. Few of the descriptions were tinged with love; sometimes they seemed more like objective witness statements and often judgements. When you consider the descriptions of her family, it sits oddly with the way she always considers herself as part of a group identity rather than an individual and even when she throws light on her achievements, the husband, the daughters, the house, it is only as a comparison with her siblings.
There were some parts of the book I enjoyed and which still sing in my mind. An overload of descriptions occasionally made for tiring reading, but when it worked best, it really set the scene. The image of Veronica and Ada sat in the front room of the house, with the hair from Ada's brush sizziling as she flings it into the fireplace or the nowhere corner of Gatwick which masquerades as a Wetherspoons.
I am less keen on the back story; Veronica drafts and redrafts the story of how Ada (her Grandmother) met her husband Charlie and his friend Lambert - I see the point of this, she is trying to look back and justify the past, to give a reason why things have turned out as they have. To some extent she gives a bigger picture in doing so, she makes more sympathetic and rounded characters from the dead, she paints a history of her family, a love interest and a retrospection of life in Ireland. The flip side is that this story is less than believable. It seems questionable that anyone would pen a short story about their granny having sex.
Do I like Veronica? Not particularly, but by the end of the book I understood her. I started out wanting to know what had happened to Liam in the winter of 1968 to scar him so badly and turn him into the kind of hopeless sick man you push away on a drunken Saturday night or see getting beaten up by taxi drivers. What would bring him to weight his pockets with stones and wade into the sea?
I wanted to know and irritated by the drawn out story of Ada I almost flipped to the back to find out. Sticking with it, by the time the revelation came the dark ending was expected. As the story goes on, you suspect Veronica is only just piecing things together, the urgency dies and both you and she can wait for her to haul the suppressed memories into light.
There are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, but sadly not enough to make you like her family or even to feel sorry for them. It's like the numbness of Liam's death has affected not just Veronica but the whole book, which overall, feels hollow and vague. You don't laugh or cry, instead you plod along like an observer, hazily feeling dislike for Kitty or worse still, nothing at all for Ada. If this was the intention, then it's perfectly captured. Even the love and hate her husband claimed to stir felt dispassionate. If you want emotion, vibrancy and colour you won't find it here.
At a loss as to what to read next, I went in search of Man Booker Prize winners and found this one (from 2007) in the local library. The blurb describes it as a 'family epic', 'tracing the line of hurt and redemption through three generations', but at its heart is the story of one woman's inner turmoil, her scrambling through family history to find whatever it is that will help her to make sense of and then return to, the life from which she has become both physically and emotionally detached.
In the review I wrote of the last book I read, Down River (John Hart), I said that I prefer less action and more emotion, character, prose. Well, I certainly got what I asked for!
The plot itself is very simple. The protagonist, Veronica Hegarty, is bringing her brother's body back to Ireland from Brighton where he walked into the sea to his death, his blood full of alcohol, his pockets full of stones. The Gathering of the title refers to his wake, attended by the vast Hegarty clan. Veronica believes that the seeds of her brother's suicide were sewn many years earlier, when they were children staying at their grandmother's house.
And so she reaches back into history reimagining events that she never witnessed, retelling stories that she has heard, delving into her own unreliable memory to paint a picture of the past. Some of this comes across as a stream of consciousness, with her sometimes correcting herself when she remembers wrongly, or questioning her own memory. This is not the strict telling of a story or a family history, but is an impression of it, a version of it, a perfect demonstration of the fact that history is always subjective. She says herself of history and of her brother, Liam's story: "If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head."
There is not much action in The Gathering. External action, that is. This novel concentrates on the internal noise and images, not the external ones. There is a scene, for example, where her grandmother first meets Lamb Nugent, a man who she will not marry, but who will not leave her life and who will have a profound effect on the rest of the family. They see each other across a hotel lobby. That is it. And yet, whilst the eight pages that describe this meeting have no external action or dialogue, the internal noise and turmoil of desire and restraint is very powerful and somehow, through Enright's writing, incredibly noisy.
When Veronica talks about the event that started this story back in their grandmother's house, she says she can 'feel it roaring inside me'. How better to summarise this book - a memory that can be felt and that has an incredible internal clamour.
Enright's observation is compelling, it's not the detail that she observes, but the otherwise unseen. She paints a picture with her words and the imagery is beautiful and sometimes humorous, but always perfectly crafted. For example, she says of her grandmother: "Her own hands, as she unsheathes them from her black leather gloves, are skinny and restless: a tangle of strings and knobs and bones, like ship's rigging."
As is to be expected from a novel about family and about the gathering of that family at a moment of significance, this novel addresses the big issues of life and death, love and loss, memories and family secrets. It is, though, essentially a personal take on all of this, as Veronica struggles with her own demons. It is not a book that will change your own view on these big issues.
Before writing a review, I usually read a few to see what other people's impressions are and it has to be said that The Gathering gets a very mixed response. What's for sure is people either really enjoy it or really hate it. The main complaint is that it is tedious and some feel it is pretentious. Those who love it talk of the clever and beautiful prose.
I do understand why people may not enjoy this novel. I expect the younger me would have thought it pretentious, but the older me can empathise with and understand the internal dialogue of this unhinged mother!
If you like a story with plot and action, then I would caution against this book. If you find memories, emotions and introspection tedious then steer clear.
I personally really enjoyed it. I did not feel it suffered from a lack of plot, because I felt the plot was actually Veronica's own story of confusion and anguish, her bereavement. I loved the prose and found it a joy to read.
I bought this book because it won the Man Booker prize so thought it would make for good reading. I've now read it twice; I read it the second time to see if I missed something the first time and I'm afraid I don't think I did. I find it quite a pretentious book which is probably why it won the prize but in all honesty I've read far better books that have won nothing. Saying that, its not the worst book I've ever read either. Its....experimental? I'm not sure but here's my take on it.
This is the thing that I thought I'd missed first time round. Because it doesn't appear to have one. The story is told in first person by Veronica Hegarty, whose huge Irish family is gathering for the funeral of her brother Liam who committed suicide by walking into the sea at Brighton.
The story revolves around Veronica's search for the reasons as to why her brother felt compelled to kill himself, as well as some soul searching to come to terms with her crowded past. Its not a very "involved" story; we're very much in Veronica's mind and the story reads like a stream of consciousness. We never see the other characters in the story very closely as the narrative is so distant. There are also chapters where she thinks about the relationship between her grandparents, and her grandmothers subsequent relationship with a man called Lamb Nugent. Veronica quickly establishes herself as an unreliable narrator - she'll state something, then say that she's not sure if it really happened or not. When she does reveal the reason she believes Liam killed himself I wasn't sure if she was stating a fact from what she remembered or if she was simply making it up. I guess this is always a problem with first person narrative but normally I can see past it. It wasn't so easy in this case.
Nothing happens. The story is really just the period between Liam's death and suicide and is a mis-mash of everything Veronica does and thinks about during that period - how she feels about Liam and how she feels about her husband whom she no longer wants to be with.
Veronica is not a likeable character which I find increased the distance between her and I in a novel that already comes across as distant. She seems self-centred and full of herself and assumes everything is about her. She seems to have a flippant relationship towards her two young daughters and gives the impression she's too wrapped up in herself to take much notice of them.
She claims she and her brother Liam were close but little evidence of this is shown. There's one minor incident from when they were children but it doesn't really suggest a closeness, so I don't know if the closeness was just a figment of her imagination or if the writer has just failed to illustrate it well.
Its hard to pass judgement on any other character as we see so little of them. Veronica's mother is in the story as is the majority of her survivng 12 siblings but I can't say I feel their pain or grief at the loss of Liam because we never see them close enough to hone in on them. We do see a spark of her mother's personality when Veronica tells her about Liam's death but she quickly fades into the background with the rest of the world as Veronica brings herself to centre stage. Maybe its a testament to growing up in such a large family- Veronica was so used to simply being one of 12 that now she has left home she's getting a chance to absorb in herself? I do get the feeling she is having some sort of breakdown but I can't say I feel any empathy towards her.
She holds a bitterness towards her mother for having so many children. On more than one occasion she mentions the fact that she doesn't think her mother even knows which "one" she (Veronica) is.
The story feels disjointed, fragmented and all over the place which I guess is some sort of reflection of life within the huge Hegarty family. The chapters about the grandparents are odd because we don't know how much of it is true so don't know if it is a true reflection of how Veronica became the person she is today. Veronica, Liam and Kitty were allegedly shunted off to their grandparents periodically because their mother was struggling to cope with all her children, which would largely explain Veronica's percieved bitterness towards her mother.
What the book lacks in plot it makes up for in prose. There are some vivid descriptions and although some bits seem a bit "clunky" I get the impression this is a deliberate device used by the author to help demonstrate Veronica's confused frame of mind.
I've read reviwes of this book on other websites and may reviewers state it holds a message of some sort; about coming to terms with life, about how there's only so much in life we can choose etc. Personally I didn't find any such message. Its a story, plain and simple, but it was just a bit too bland for me.
If you enjoy good prose then you'll probably enjoy this. If you like stories where a lot of things happen then avoid! I think maybe this book was a bit clever for me. I like some "heavier" literature but this was over my head.
It's not difficult to see why Anne Enright's "The Gathering" has been short-listed (and eventually, selected) for that ultimate literary fiction accolade, the Man Booker prize. If our (or the jurors') idea of the the peaks of literary novel is, almost unavoidably, defined by the Great Moderns, if it's all of Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence; Proust and Kafka; then "The Gathering" had to be recognised because it's steeped in that tradition.
Veronica Hegarty, one of the twelve Hegarty siblings is bringing her brother Liam home to bury. He walked to his death in the Brighton sea, his brain muddled by drink, his pockets filled with stones. The gathering of the title refers to the family coming to the funeral in Dublin, but most of the book consists of Veronica's reminiscences and imaginings before that, while she sorts out the transport and the funeral arrangements.
Veronica is telling (or trying to tell) her family's history over the last 80 or so years, and by doing that she's hoping to find answers, find explanations, find solutions - ostensibly to the conundrum of Liam's death - but ultimately, she's searching for some kind closure to her own anguish. She thinks she has an explanation: one in tune with our popular, current, early-21st century understandings of what causes people to become maladjusted, and she latches onto this explanation, choosing it as the focal point of her story, clinging to it desperately: one period when, during her mother's depression, she and her brother lived with their grandmother and he was - possibly, probably, likely, undoubtedly? - 'interfered with' by a family acquaintance.
Ostensibly, an account of the death of a particularly dysfunctional member of a dysfunctional family, "The Gathering" is not Liam's tale, it's not a family story (though it's a story about family), not even a 'sexual history' as it's claimed in the promo blurb. It's Veronica's tale, and a disturbing and an almost unrelentingly grim one it is. Not just because Veronica has crossed the line between some kind of normality and some kind of a nervous breakdown: her marriage dissolving into a silent scream of hate and alienation, Veronica "not believeing in her husband's body anymore"; her drinking barely under control, her sleep out of kilter, she roams the house at night trying to work out "why are they so fucked up, and why are they so much there", remembering and imagining, imagining and remembering.
It is - of course - a very well written book, with a strong, penetrating voice and profoundly visceral insights, written in something akin to a very vivid stream of conciousness. There is a physical quality to the writing that wonderfully mirrors Veronica's obsessive concentration on the bodily in general, and on the sexual in particular - we never learn why, but the figure of the mother, who bore 12 children (and miscarried 7 more), "passive and sweet and vague", and in some way monstrously sexual in this vague passivity - has to have something to do with it.
On a charitable reading, one could say that "The Gathering" is about what all great novels are: about loss and death, and sex and love; about family, "those people you never chose to love but love all the same" but to me it lacked universality. Gazing into Veronica's mind was somehow repulsively fascinating, but the content remained particular to her. Crisis situations and life events (including wedding and funerals) are frequently used as a focus for presenting a concentrated snapshot of a social landscape, but "The Gathering" didn't make this leap: the landscape is purely emotional, and the people and ghosts that populate Veronica's mind have no life of their own, and the sex and love and even death are also her peculiar versions. She's so full of angst, regret and resentment that she's not capable of telling me anything new about love and death, and she tells me very little that I could read as a shared experience and ultimately leaves me cold and quite happy to let her go, in an ending that is ironic and a little bit more uplifting than the rest of the book, to navel-gaze in her own private world.
Three personal stars for (mine, perhaps) inability to connect, and four general stars as it's - more objectively - a very good piece of writing. Not, I hasten to say, one for people who demand that something actually happens in their novels or who like to like their narrators, but for the sheer quality of the work, cautiously recommended for readers of literary fiction.
277 pages Jonathan Cape hardback, around £6.50 on Amazon