Written by: Anne Enright
Published by: Vintage
Many Irish writers are preoccupied with what has affected them their whole life: the Irish family. Described by everyone from Samuel Beckett to Cecelia Ahern, there is no escape from this fundamental part of our society.
Enright chooses the fourteen member Hegarty clan to really convey the many faces of Irish people. In her fictional family, there is a priest (albeit he wants to leave the priesthood), an alcoholic and a deranged housewife–to name but a stereotypical few. At the heart of this huge family is the Irish Mammy. Enright’s Mammy Hegarty differs though, in that she is not the boisterous, headstrong leader that many Irish mothers are. She is meek, weighed down by her children (both dead and alive) and as time progresses, she is only too happy to let them take care of her instead.
The story is told through the eyes of Veronica Hegarty, one of the children. Enright almost immediately introduces Veronica’s brother Liam and his recent death. What ensues is Veronica’s various emotions of distress, mourning, guilt and reflection on the troubled childhood she had with Liam. Veronica acknowledges that Liam’s death is most likely connected to a terrible incident that occurred many years ago at their grandmother’s home. This incident is referred to vaguely up until halfway through when she actually reveals it. The exposure is skillful because it slips in almost casually without being thrown in your face. Read a line ahead and you’d nearly miss it completely.
[ad#longpost]Only then does the reader understand the torment that Veronica is going through and why she feels so guilty that Liam chose to suffer it alone. Her emotional distress occurs during the ten days leading up to Liam’s funeral. Because he died in England, they have to follow British procedures and cannot bury him after three or four days as in Irish custom. She gives a powerful insight into her marriage to a man who she is convinced hates her and only stays because it’s the right thing to do. She has two daughters who she wants to shield from the world but knows it’s only a matter of time before they encounter their own hardship.
The flashbacks are seamless because Enright continues Veronica’s narrative of times gone by to avoid confusion. Then she describes Liam at different ages and their relationship. However, her imagined description of her grandmother’s courtship with her grandfather is confusing but it becomes relevant later on.
The book is powerful in many ways but mostly because it forces you to reflect on your own family. What may have seemed to be problematic can pale in comparison to the Hegartys or perhaps the reader will fully empathise.
The Irish Family has long been interlinked with Catholic guilt. There are so many things we have been taught to be deeply ashamed of: our sexuality, no longer loving your spouse, aspiring above your station. All of these are sins of the highest decree and despite our evolving, multicultural society, we have yet to truly escape them and the shame they inflict. The Gathering (not to be confused with the current Irish tourism initiative) is a dark, despairing tale at the best of times and gives little in the way of positivity except when it reveals the love felt among the family. Although it was rarely vocalised or portrayed in a healthy manner, the Hegartys do love one another dearly and it illustrates the power of unconditional, familial love.