I remember thinking, upon starting The Gathering, by Anne Enright, that I was going to finish the book in no time. I wanted to keep reading not so much to figure out the mystery of what had happened to the protagonist, Veronica, and her newly dead brother, Liam, but to keep the sting of Ms. Enright’s language fresh. It’s not her words that are beautiful or surprising–they are quite everyday–but the way she combines them to evoke feeling: empathy, horror, confusion, disbelief, hopelessness.
Consider this passage, where Veronica, after telling her mother of her brother’s death, imagines herself looking down at the scene from near the kitchen ceiling: “This is where Liam is. Up here. I feel him like a shout in the room.”
“…like a shout in the room.” I needed some time to recover from that one–it was so simple, so dead-on I couldn’t believe I’d never heard that description before, yet at the same time, I was absolutely sure I never had. On the sentence level, there is a lot of newness in this book.
I am going to poach from a conversation I had with a friend regarding The Gathering this weekend: we were discussing the rhythm of the language–mainly that there isn’t one. She brought up God of Small Things and likened Ms. Roy’s language to music, how there was a beat drumming through it, a beat that kept the reader marching through the narrative. The Gathering is not musical. There is a certain amount of pain involved in getting through it–it doesn’t carry you, or wash over you. One person I know who gave up on this book early did so because of the lack of rhythm (the other, because of “how depressing it was.”) If it had a sound, it might be of ice shattering. I can picture it that way: shards–sharp and splintering–falling in a hundred directions all at the same time, glittering each one, each one crashing towards the ground.
I picture ice, too, because of a certain coolness pervading the book. Veronica had her reasons to be distant, from her many siblings, from her husband and children, from her mother, from her past, from the reader. She gave the reader access to her thoughts–often unfiltered, cruel, stunning–yet she invited neither empathy nor sympathy. Each episode and anecdote she revealed–most regarding family, most regarding the vulnerability of the body–both reflected and convoluted what surrounded it. Her observations were crystalline, clear as ice, yet the reader could see through each one to what had some before; her musings piled up, complicating and obfuscating each other. The combined effect of so much conflicted clarity made for a cloudy narrative.
So the distance in this book was not only emotional, but narrative. Time was folded in on itself. We had Veronica’s present, her imagined present for her grandmother as a young woman, her past a small child shipped off with two of her siblings to live with their grandmother, points in her young adulthood, her early motherhood. The action in each of these time periods was interesting, tragic, observed from the side, shared with us from an angle. Where I ran into problems was in the nearer present. It is strange that I fully accepted the transitions between past and further past, between adulthood and childhood, yet was completely perplexed by the movement through time regarding the immediate present, the days leading up to and following Liam’s funeral. While the obfuscation of Veronica’s true desires worked to further the plot and development of her inner life, the confusion in terms of time was sometimes distracting.
This is where my losing the book for two weeks factors in. Perhaps if I had read it as I intended to, as it felt like it needed and wanted to be read–all at once–I would have been able to keep my days and places straight. Or, I may not have cared when I wasn’t sure what had already happened when Veronica made certain observations, what was still, in terms of linear time, yet to come. Perhaps I still would have had trouble. I plan on reading The Gathering again to be sure–the language certainly calls for repeated explorations.
I do want to read it again, but by the end of the end of this time through, I was exhausted by the bleakness, the connections Veronica chose to break, let break, wouldn’t mend, the credit she wouldn’t give, the love she withheld. Ms. Enright saved it though, in the best way to save a book, or anything, for me–with children. She was able to tie the past and the present, the many generations and expansive scope of the Heggerty family, together with a couple of Veronica’s simple desires in the book’s last few pages. I won’t give away how or why or what happened, but in the end, for me at least, those ice shards flying through the air finally hit the ground and melted together into something, if not wholy satisfying, quite beautiful.