One of the most interesting things about Anne Enright’s 2007 novel The Gathering is the history of text that it might have been.
It was initially Enright’s intention to write The Gathering as a Faulknerian 500-some page text that would follow three generations of the Hegarty family through a century of Irish history, from the early 1900’s to the early 2000’s. The section in the novel in which the Hegarty’s meet for their brother Liam’s funeral, certainly seems to anticipate the Christmas dinner set-piece of her 2015 novel The Green Road, suggesting that the novel began as a practice run for this later work. The Gathering apparently ‘fell apart’ in the course of the drafting process, and became the far more fragmented work we now have, one which is unresolved with regard to its own historical consciousness, the allegory of modern Irish history which acts as, to some extent, the novel’s framework.
Take Veronica’s account of her very Irish family, which is at once a detailed account of her own, as well as Irish families more generally:
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.
Take, also, Veronica’s heavily freighted name; the biblical Veronica wiped Jesus’ face with a piece of cloth, which took his imprint. It is a name which carries with it the burden of creating truly mimetic art, an aspiration towards the re-creation of causality, the ‘real world’ on the page. It is a burden which Veronica fails to live up to, she is more interested in processes of un-doing, rather than re-creating. The significance of names does not pass Veronica by, making fun of her mother in the following aside: ‘Such epic names she gave us — none of your Jimmy, Joe or Mick.’
The novel’s quiet allegory also manifests itself in the novel’s portrait of a hundred years of Irish history from below. There is a suggestion that Veronica’s grandmother was a sex worker, part of the generation of ‘reformed’ prostitutes put into halfway houses by the church to dry out until they were deemed fit to re-join society. Veronica theorises that her grandmother was one of these, in an attempt to explain her brother’s suicide, and her family’s struggles with mental health, but casts doubt on her account even she advances it, dismissing it as ‘A dusty, middle-class fantasy, of crinkled stockings and TB, and hunkering to wash over a basin on the floor’.
Her narrative fails to account for Liam’s suicide. No shape that she puts on the narrative remains secure because Liam, her grandmother and her uncle (who was institutionalised due to mental health issues arising from his being abused) are not victims in isolation, they are part of a generation of victims throughout the state’s history, whether they be ‘fallen’ women put into Magdalene laundries, or children in industrial schools. It is only after these testimonies begin to surface in public life that Veronica remembers witnessing Liam’s abuse, and places it within a national chronology:
This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family — a whole fucking country — drowning in shame.
Over the next twenty years the world around us changed and I remembered Mr Nugent. But I never would have made that shift on my own if I hadn’t been listening to the radio and reading the paper and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people’s homes.
Of course, The Gathering is just one attempt at an explanation, for just one victim, and it can’t be expected to encompass just how many there were. This is highlighted at a stage in the novel in which Veronica visits as mass grave at a mental institution that has been recently closed:
Just one cross — quite new — at the end of a little central path. A double row of saplings promise rowan trees to come. There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt of this field, and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.
Throughout the novel, bones are associated with the act of narration, Veronica comforts her hand with the neat ‘arc’ of a cuttlefish bone, and feels for her children’s bones when she embraces them, enjoying the symmetry and their apparent lack of complication. The image of ‘tangled’ bones provides little hope of ever reaching closure for the innumerable victims of the Irish state’s negligence and cruelty.
To what extent The Gathering is about the history of systematic female oppression might all be Veronica’s contrivance, or, equally, Enright’s. She is not a heavy-handed novelist, and it is not just Veronica’s uncertainty that might prevent us from accepting this reading, but Enright’s subtlety. The one scene which might be said to be turn things up a little too loudly takes place in an asylum named St. Ita’s, during which a brief history of the saint’s role in embodying a feminine ideal is supplied.
Perhaps any account is doomed to failure, knowing how pockmarked the historical record is by aporia and silence, enforced or otherwise. The extent of victim’s suffering will be passed over, or ignored, particularly as long as the state’s policy is to continue to adopt the policy of ‘deny till they die’.
I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother’s life and it is crucial, it is the place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of an x. In a way, it explains too much.
Chris Beausang is a first year PhD candidate Digital Arts and Humanities at An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University. His research uses R programming and neural networks to investigate whether a modernist prose style can be said to persist throughout the twentieth century and in the works of a number contemporary novelists. Chris has had fiction published in Gorse, The Bohemyth & The Galway Review. He was shortlisted for the Sunday Business Post and Penguin Short Story competition in 2017. His website is http://www.analoguehumanist.wordpress.com and he tweets @differengenera