Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

This book took me a long time to read. I started it probably a month ago, and set it down quite a few times. I usually have several books going at once, but I tend to read fiction pretty quickly, since I like to stay in the world while I'm visiting, if that makes sense. But I read at least several YA novels and a collection of stories since I started The Gathering. This is partly because the subject matter of The Gathering isn't always easy, but I think it might be more because I am out of the habit of reading really challenging contemporary novels, written for adults.

But I kept carrying it around with me/keeping it next to my bed, and I kept picking it up again. I kept loving it, too, and I have never been one to stop reading a book I'm loving. So this morning I finished it, and while I got it out of the library, I'll probably end up buying a copy--coming from this broke, library-loving reader, this girl with her bookshelves full, who essentially has to dispose of a book every time she adds a new one to the shelves, that's extremely high praise.

Enright is an Irish author, and the back cover compares her to many great contemporary woman writers (Munro, Didion) and she is compared twice to Edna O'Brien, but one of the blurbs that compares her to O'Brien also notes that "Enright is more interestingly placed among experimental, if otherwise diverse, Irish writers..."

Which is also why this novel took me a while to read, and while I found it challenging. Its structure is interesting, and perhaps experimental. The story of a large family, it flips back and forth between the grandparents' early courtship, a summer visit that three siblings pay to the grandparents during their childhood, and the funeral of one of the siblings, among other moments. I never had a problem following the shifts in time, and while I was certainly aware that Veronica, the sibling who narrates the book, couldn't have known many of the details she discusses, this didn't bother me--and Veronica is very open about it. It isn't so much a novel in which Veronica relates events, but one in which she tries to recreate events as a way of making sense of the events that followed.

It is, ultimately, an amazing book about family. As Veronica notes, "I do not think we remember our family in any real sense. We live in them, instead." And as we see Veronica living in her grandmother, her brother, her daughters, we see how true this is. At the funeral, Veronica says, "just at this moment, I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive."

It is also about how we present our families to outsiders, but how ultimately they only make full sense (or mostly full sense) to us, and us to them.

It is also a novel about leaving behind those who die. For one thing, Veronica notes that she feels she should console her father "for the distance we have moved from the place where he stopped." I know so completely what she means. I know that feeling absolutely, but I never had the words for it before.

It is also about childhood, or remembering childhood. Veronica observes, "I look at my own children and I think you know everything at eight. But maybe I am wrong. You know everything at eight, but it is hidden from you, sealed up, in a way you have you cut yourself open to find."

And it is a novel about grief, which may be why I kept putting it down, and also why I had to finish it.

This is one of those amazing books that is four or five stories in one, layered so richly that you might have to read it four or five times to notice everything, or at least notice most of it. It took me a long time to read because it was hard work. But Veronica imagines her grandmother thinking this: "If Ada [the grandmother] had reached any sort of conclusion in this life, it was a little one. People, she used to think, do not change, they are merely revealed."

This, this last, is not the only thing in this book that I will keep thinking about.

1 comment:

Jess said...

Thanks for the tip on this book. I'll have to get it from the library. :)