Reviewed by Peter Behrens
Sunday, October 21, 2007
By Anne Enright
Black Cat. 261 pp. Paperback, $14
There is something livid and much that is stunning about The Gathering, which deservedly won this year's Man Booker Prize. Anger brushes off every page, a species of rage that aches to confront silence and speak truth at last. The book's narrative tone echoes Joan Didion's furious, cool grief, but the richest comparison may be with James Joyce's Dubliners, of which the author, always his own best interlocutor, claimed, "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the center of paralysis."
Perhaps Anne Enright's novel is the Dubliners of the new millennium, even if she has not quite invented the wheel, stylistically and thematically, as Joyce did in his 1914 story collection. Both books are concerned with life now, though Joyce's now is turn-of-the-19th-century Dublin, whereas Enright's Dublin -- stainless steel Miele dishwashers, Saab 9-3s, small girls being raised on organic sausage and beans -- is pretty much current.
But it does seem clear that Enright's purpose is also to add a chapter to the moral history of her country. The Gathering tells a family story, which may be the best way to attempt such a thing. The story is grounded in the Ireland that invented itself sometime around 1985, when the emigration that had been paring the country down to its bones for 150 years started to slow and, eventually, reverse. More people speak Polish than Irish in the Republic these days, the population is inching up to its pre-famine level, and the girl pulling your pint in the terribly upscale bar at Dalkey has her MBA from the University of Ghent; the Irish have become attractively rich for the first time. Joyce wouldn't know the place.
The past used to weigh heavily on the Irish, perhaps because so little of the present was interesting. But Enright's Dublin is a technologically adept country spellbound by the speed of its own transformation, where citizens older than 40 feel antediluvian and try to conceal it by memorizing the names of important wines or taking golf vacations in South Carolina. These Dubliners are accustomed to urban sprawl, spellbinding real estate prices and self-contained children more familiar with the folkways of Orange County than those of County Mayo. The Republic has become postmodern and post-Catholic overnight, it seems, and the Irish are as confused as anyone by the way we, and they, live now.
The Gathering is a novel about memory: who did what to whom, who remembers the facts clearly and who doesn't. (Hardly anyone does, even the narrator.) Enright explores the tragedy of a brother's suicide by sorting through events that occurred, or did not, in a terraced house in the north Dublin suburb of Broadstone 'round about 1968. Or maybe it was in the garage; memory, Enright signals, is a painful, tricky thing.
Enright's Hegartys were once 12 brothers and sisters. The survivors are now in various stages of middle age. Her story builds around the recent death of an annoying, beloved brother, Liam, who has drowned by walking out into the sea at Brighton. Narrated by Liam's nearest-in-age sister, Veronica, who remembers persons and events that shaped her brother's unsatisfactory life, the novel is grounded in the weeks following Liam's death. And here there are certainly conscious echoes of earlier Irish fictions, where coffins, wakes and funeral masses figure so prominently. But Veronica's edginess keeps moving powerfully back to memories of the childhood and adolescence shared with Liam and all those others. She tries to unreel that fierce Irish silence that, with cups of strong tea, used to get everyone through, often at considerable psychological cost.
Everything that happens and does not happen here feels painfully and awkwardly true, even the notes of redemption. Enright seems to know the bone structure of the Irish family during its turbulent silence of the 1960s and '70s, when elders were still treated with fearful deference and children were less important than they are now, perhaps because there were so many of them and the houses were so tiny.
One last literary comparison suggests itself. Enright's Veronica -- Saab and all -- keeps banging into her Irish life, digging for a memory that will explain the inexplicable. In Alice Munro's brilliant, always surprising stories, provincial women, likewise raised to value silence, hold up stubborn candles and speak of matters not previously awarded language. In their own distractingly noisy way, the Irish have always been quite as silent as Munro's reserved Canadians, but now, it seems, is the time for talk. *
Peter Behrens is the author of "The Law of Dreams."