What Family Does to You

Eleanor Birne

  • The Gathering by Anne Enright
    Cape, 261 pp, £12.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 07873 3

The Gathering – Anne Enright’s fourth novel, and her best – is aware of its heritage, of the books that have gone before it. It makes use of familiar signals and motifs. It is centred on a wake for a man who has died early: an alcoholic who was betrayed as a child, part of a large, chaotic family. So far so Irish. But there are new things too. There is nothing clichéd about the language (Enright treasures words; she polishes them, puts them on display). The narrator is someone new too; part of the new Ireland. She is Veronica, the dead Liam’s (slightly) younger sister, who lives a comfortable middle-class existence, and is trying to work out where she fits in with all this – with their combined past, and Liam’s death.

The novel opens with Veronica learning that Liam has committed suicide. He drowned himself off Brighton beach. We find out – later – that he had stones in his pockets, that he was wearing a fluorescent coat so that his body could be easily found, and that he was wearing no socks and no pants. The shock of Liam’s death leads Veronica to suspend her own life and go back over his; to keep him company in his coffin. She re-creates and, where necessary, imagines the events that went towards making his life the life it was. In doing so, she has to open doors into dark rooms and turn up messy, uncomfortable facts. She knows from the start when things began to go wrong for her brother. The Gathering is a gathering of family members around one of their dead, but it is also a gathering of facts, of evidence. It opens with a declaration that is almost like a witness statement:

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. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

Liam was the victim of a crime, and Veronica as witness will expose it. The crime is in the past, which means the novel becomes an act of reclamation. For Veronica, bones are words; sentences are skeletons: intricate, delicate, perfect, breakable – ‘I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.’ They are what is inside things; what props them up.

The Gathering moves between now and the past, through Veronica’s experiences in the present day and her imaginings and foragings in her family’s history. In the present, she must go to the family home to tell her mother that Liam is dead. She feels a surging anger towards a mother who was pregnant for much of her life, who had 12 children and seven miscarriages. ‘I do not forgive her the sex. The stupidity of so much humping. Open and blind. Consequences, Mammy. Consequences.’ Veronica is the responsible one; the one who has to break the news; the one who has had to go for Liam’s dental records to help the police identify his corpse. She is professional, affluent, organised; but she did not come upon this life by accident. She worked for it. Because of it, though, she is thrown into the role of protecting her mother, while realising that she herself loved Liam most. ‘It occurs to me that we have got something wrong here, because I am the one who has lost something that cannot be replaced. She has plenty more.’ Grief, here, is ‘biological, idiot, timeless’.

Back in her head – back in the telling of what did for Liam – Veronica explains:

The seeds of my brother’s death were sown many years ago. The person who planted them is long dead – at least that’s what I think. So if I want to tell Liam’s story, then I have to start long before he was born. And, in fact, this is the tale that I would love to write: history is such a romantic place, with its jarveys and urchins and side-buttoned boots. If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head.

History is tangible, physical here. It is a side-buttoned boot; it is different and strange and alluring. A digression: Enright writes the most extraordinary sentences. Her memoir, Making Babies – a book about love and, well, babies – is full of them. Her short stories are full of them. The Portable Virgin – a collection of short stories – was the first instance of Enright’s clear, playful, witty, present way of speaking. Cathy in ‘(She Owns) Every Thing’ thinks that the handbag counter she works behind smells like ‘a leather dream’. The petrol attendant in ‘What Are Cicadas?’ has a father ‘whose voice smells of dying, the way that his mother’s smells of worry and of bread’. Enright always wants to shake up language; to make her sentences new. Her sentences are so good you want to keep on quoting them: ‘Grief was this house, the leaking petrol pump, the way his mother smiled.’ But I had better stop.

Liam’s story – the story of his beginning and his end – is the story of the whole family. It began with Veronica and Liam’s grandmother, Ada Merriman, many years ago. It began the moment Ada met a man called Lambert Nugent in a hotel foyer in 1925. (‘This is the moment I choose,’ Veronica writes. ‘It was seven o’clock in the evening. She was 19, he was 23.’) History is a magical place, full of possibility; Veronica imagines the scene in all its potential richness. Ada, waiting in the lobby, is ‘beautiful, of course’; and the description follows seductively from there: ‘She was wearing blue, or so I imagine it. Her blue self settled in the grey folds of his brain, and it stayed there for the rest of his life.’ On the surface, they are two servants meeting in the lobby of a hotel; but in the language, in the imagining of the scene, they are wonderful. It’s mythology.

The concierge can see it all coming, the future, that is: ‘the coupling (such squelchings), the money, the lies that they have already begun to tell’. But the young, long-ago Ada does not in fact go on to marry Lamb Nugent, and therein lies the problem. She marries his friend Charlie Spillane instead. Charlie who has a car, and who drives them all to the races, and who is pleased for her when her horse wins – unlike Nugent. Charlie who has a hole in his pocket. History, in this book, is written in full awareness of the inevitable – with the near-misses celebrated alongside the certainty of what is to come. So, back in the hotel, ‘Ada does not know Charlie yet. Ada Merriman stands in the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel and looks at Lamb Nugent, while outside, Charlie Spillane cruises into Great Denmark Street, towards the wife he has not yet met.’ (Of course, he doesn’t go straight there, but ‘roars off to The Hut in Phibsboro, to see a man about a dog’.)

Back in the present, Liam’s death, and Veronica’s need to go back over the facts of his life, is causing her to put her own life on hold. Veronica has a Saab 9.3 that she spends a lot of time in, and a husband, Tom, and two daughters who ‘are not obliged to fight over who is wearing the other one’s knickers in the morning before they go to school’. Her house, which is modern, and has five bedrooms, is decorated in oatmeal, cream, sandstone, slate. But right now she does not want it. She does not, she discovers, want to have sex with or sleep with her husband. She stays up all night writing and cleaning and drinking wine instead of going to bed. When her husband makes love to her on the night of Liam’s wake, she lies there, with her legs either side of him, feeling like ‘a chicken when it is quartered’. She goes for pre-dawn drives in her Saab in first gear, cruising round the estate, glass of wine in hand.

As with Liam’s story – the abused boy; the drunk man – Veronica’s story feels like one we’ve read before: there’s a lot here about the small anxieties that affect the middle classes, and that’s not new in the contemporary novel. Before the children were born Veronica was a journalist on an interiors magazine: she cares about textiles and what should be hung at windows. She cries in a department store because there is nothing she cannot buy. She piles Brabantia storage jars into the crook of her arm, and then unpiles them again because there are people starving in Africa and her brother has just died and he never went into a shop. She finds herself thinking about the first boy she loved, the gentle Michael Weiss; she wonders whether he too has succumbed to the middle-class dream. She needs – in some larger, vaguer way – to decide how to live her life. She has money, but she needs a purpose and a project. Tom thinks she should renovate a house, and she imagines doing up Ada’s old house; she would enjoy the chance to smash up all that history and smooth it over. But Veronica’s up-to-the-minute, supermodern story cannot compete in terms of narrative and emotional pull beside her brother’s chaotic story, or her grandmother’s dreamier one. Veronica may be having a crisis, but she knows how to be sensible. When she runs away from home to a hotel at Gatwick airport (with spa), she buys socks and pants and a bag to put them all in – ‘quite a nice bag, very unfussy, in that bumpy, hammered leather’. This is what Veronica is like, but we didn’t need to know it or hear it said. The consumerish frisson of these passages, with the brand-names and advice-column phrasing, makes them feel like they belong in a different book, one less good and more tired. But they serve a characterising purpose, even if we’d rather not read them: Veronica can’t help herself. She goes to Accessorize in Gatwick Village, looking for ‘something small for each of the girls, something sparkling or floral’. She settles on two pairs of fancy flip-flops: she hasn’t really left her life behind; she won’t. Gatwick is a temporary, in-between, suspended place, a purgatory, full of lost souls.

The past keeps pulling her back in because the past is charismatic. We see the neat little house lived in by Charlie and Ada after their unexpected marriage. We learn that the rejected Nugent keeps his cars in the garage at the end of Ada’s little garden. About his knocking on the front door of Ada’s house every Friday to bring sweets for the children; of his leaning forward in his chair in Ada’s good room, clearing his throat a lot. Veronica knows all this because she and Liam were sent to live with Ada and Charlie for a year. It was, she reflects, here at their grandparents’ house that her brother ‘became frightened at night’. Veronica’s reclamation of Liam’s life also takes her into the more recent past, when Liam lived in a dive in Stoke Newington. The description of his existence in a shabby house with strange housemates follows on from his becoming afraid of the night; the two are structurally close in the logic of the book. And perhaps close in other ways too. (Cause and effect; consequences.) Liam lived in lots of other houses like the one in Stoke Newington; he became ‘the guy who stuck around, the one who would not go. He was the guy who could not be relied upon, the messer.’ The guy who ends up dead.

Veronica reflects on the finding of her brother’s body:

I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

She has to counter the fact of her brother’s body with the facts of what went before it. She describes her younger self, back in the winter of 1968, opening the door into Ada’s good room. This is what she sees: ‘It was as if Mr Nugent’s penis, which was sticking straight out of his flies, had grown strangely, and flowered at the tip to produce the large and unwieldy shape of a boy, that boy being my brother Liam.’ This scene occurs just over halfway through the book. The rest of the story – Liam’s story – needs to unravel from here. Veronica – and Enright as a novelist coming out of an Irish tradition – is aware of the predictability of her family situation:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift. Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them.

It is family, of course, that is at the heart of the novel. What it is, what it means, what it does to you. Enright writes brilliantly about the family gathering. It is dangerously familiar, in terms of atmosphere and the provisions made for it: the ham sandwiches, the shop-bought coleslaw. As if they meant something.

The Gathering moves towards the moment of Liam’s wake, towards the family collecting themselves together. Before they assemble, Enright, through Veronica, has shown us what has made them a family, has shown us the events that gave rise to the family as an idea. We see them together eating their coleslaw but we also know the back stories; the whys and the hows. The skeletons are out of the closet. The bones are lined up. The words are on the page. With its resuscitations, The Gathering is a ghost story of sorts. Enright has written ghost stories before: her novel The Wig My Father Wore is a weird and wild one, and has a ghost as a central character. This book is different; it is a grounded ghost story, and therefore a better one, made up of clues and facts and memories. It is a story of recollections and reimaginings and piecings together that aims to bring back the dead; to try and see what made them work; to try and see what did for them. Liam isn’t coming back to haunt anybody, but the facts of his story haunt his sister. Ada; Nugent; Charlie; Liam. Veronica aside, the most compelling characters in this novel are all dead, brought back to life by the skill and the imagination of the family historian, the family imaginer. It went wrong for Liam in the good room, at the races: but when, exactly? It went wrong for him a while back. It went wrong for others too. It went wrong for her mother with her too frequent pregnancies. The Gathering is about family history and family secrets and why people become the people they do. It is about destiny and the fact that we have no control over what happens to us. We are created by our bones, our blood, our DNA, whatever it was our parents did for us.

After the wake comes the funeral. Liam lies in his coffin while Veronica sits with her husband and daughters at the front of the church. This is what it has all led to, the novel says; this is where it has all ended up. Except of course it hasn’t. Because there is a new child too; a new child and a new generation. Rowan is Liam’s son. ‘He has the Hegarty eyes, we say – delighted, like they weren’t a curse – and we look to see what human being looks out through them, this time.’ The future is there with the past’s own eyes.