ABCs of 1001 Books: The Gathering

A – Although there were several other books in the Gs that appealed to me more, I chose The Gathering by Anne Enright because the others did not have audiobook versions, and Enright’s did. Novels with an introspective, first-person narrator lend themselves well to this format.

B – As an added bonus, the audiobook’s reader, Terry Donnelly, has a pleasing Irish lilt that enhances the lyricism of the narrator’s often dark thoughts.

C – A caution: this book is very sexually frank. I don’t say “explicit” because the narrator’s commentary on sex isn’t meant to titillate the reader. She has frankly negative views toward sex. She also, disturbingly, wonders about the romantic and sexual lives of her grandparents. These passages reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which is a novel I would highly recommend (while The Gathering is not).

D – Writing this post now, I have considerable emotional distance because I read Enright’s novel over two months ago. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write this one is my belief in the axiom: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

E – Enright has described her novel as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy” (1001 Books 940). I read it to figure out what that even means.

F – Although Veronica is a strong first-person narrator, the novel is equally about the large Hegarty family, including Veronica’s parents, siblings, and grandparents.

G – The family gathers for the wake of Veronica’s brother, Liam. His suicide relates to the “weepy” part of Enright’s quote, and the slow revelation of the family’s dramatic secrets comprises the “Hollywood” parts.

H – This is a somewhat historical novel because Veronica imagines her grandparents’ lives with both psychological and historically rich detail.

I – Very early in my listening I found myself wondering, “Is this narrator insane?” Her disturbed thoughts seem to go deeper than the recent grief of losing her brother to suicide. Her negativity distorts everything in her life, from the way she relates to her husband to the way she lives in her house. Eventually Veronica asks herself if she’s insane and basically concludes she does not care if she is. So I guess that answers my question.

J – One thing I’ve come to realize while writing this blog is that my experience of each book is tied to my judgment of how “worthwhile” I deem the story to be. Does this story “deserve” to be told? Do I feel like a better person because I’ve read it, because I’ve “born witness” to the fictionalized sorrows and frustrations of this certain type of person? By this arbitrary judgment, I can decide that I like reading a book when I don’t enjoy reading it. By this arbitrary judgment, Down Second Avenue is “worthwhile” because it tells the story of a poor, oppressed African person and The Gathering is “not worthwhile” because it tells the story of a middle-class, privileged Irish person. Now that I’m aware of this judgment, I must resist it. I want to believe that every story is “worthwhile” because I do believe that every person is intrinsically valuable.

K – No one is physically killed in the course of the novel, but if negative thoughts could kill, Veronica would be quite the prolific criminal. Even the brother she loves can’t escape her criticism.

L – I wouldn’t want to live in Veronica’s pessimistic mind. She notices and is disturbed by so many little details.

M – I tend to listen to audiobooks in the morning, while I take my dog for a fifteen minute walk and then prepare our breakfasts. But Veronica’s narration would have darkened my day, so I chose a different morning audiobook and parceled out this novel in fifteen or thirty minute chunks in the evening, when I felt more mentally fortified against it.

N – My negative reaction could be seen as praise for Enright’s stylistic prowess. Enright deftly puts the reader inside Veronica’s thoughts, emotions, and memories.

O – I did enjoy the parts of the book that revealed observations about how the siblings interacted and what it’s like, in both emotional and practical ways, to grow up in a large family.

P – With a publication date of 2007, this is the first book I’ve read that was written in my lifetime. Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to visit Dublin, the author’s city, for a week in the spring of that year.

Q – I would describe the narrator, and therefore the author, as having a quick wit, but a back jacket summary puts it better by stating that Enright’s “distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction.” (I picked up a paperback version published in the US by Black Cat as a reference for writing this post.)

R – Another reason I picked this novel from the 1001 Books list was my desire to read modern Irish literature. I enjoyed the glimpses of Irish culture and history I got from reading classics and Angela’s Ashes in college.

S – I like that books considered great literature can be on the extremes of the specificity continuum. You can have a novel people love because it compellingly expresses the experiences of particular people in a particular time and place. Or you can have a novel people love because it eloquently expresses experiences that readers can relate to regardless of time and place. Enright’s novel likely falls in the second category for the people who like it. The novel is not all that specific to the setting of Ireland because of its intense focus on characterization and family drama.

T – A tanka composed of phrases from The Gathering. (Read this page for a good explanation of this poetic form by poets.org.)

I write, or I don’t,

Liam’s story, always

At cross purposes

That may not have taken place,

The seeds of my brother’s death.

U – An example of Veronica’s disturbingly unhinged perspective is the recurring hallucination of a corpse following her. A corpse that she insists is not her brother’s and sees in places such as the front seat of her car.

V – The narrator has an interesting view of her mother, introduced in the second chapter when Veronica states that she sometimes doesn’t remember her mother even though her mother remains alive. You almost wonder if her insistence on her mother’s impermanence is a delusion to protect herself from acknowledging all the ways her mother has negatively affected her.

W – The Wikipedia article for this novel is labeled as a stub. So if you like to contribute to Wikipedia, that could be a reason to read this difficult book.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – If you have read this novel, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments.

Z – Although there are twelve Hegarty siblings, none of them have a name that starts with Z.

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