It is not too far a stretch to say that Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning The Gathering (2007) is a gloss on this verse from Genesis.
To the woman he said, “I will multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”
Here is Veronica, the forty year old narrator, an Irish middleclass mother of two, reflecting on her mother’s life.
[My father] did love my mother. There is always that unpalatable fact – the fact that my father loved my mother, and she loved him right back. But he did not love her enough to leave her alone. No. My father, I imagine, had sex the way his children got drunk – which is to say, against his better judgement; not for the pleasure of it, so much as to make it all stop.
The result: twelve children and six miscarriages. Veronica’s vision sees sex as a force to be managed, one that takes its toll, and leaves a woman burdened. Paradoxically, sex produces the children that are her joy, the living extensions of herself. In her ordeal, and this book traces Veronica’s ordeal, her husband is estranged by his very desire. What will he do “to make it all stop”? Veronica can imagine the worst, just as she condemns herself for such imagining.
Being a mother, a spouse, and a sibling in so large a family, is an issue that wraps itself around a secret—indeed, a putative crime. We learn in the novel’s first line that: [Veronica] “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.”
She does finally write “it” down; the impetus is the death by drowning, a suicide, of Liam, Veronica’s younger and closest brother. “The uncertain event” is the cause, so Veronica comes to believe, of self-murder.
Genealogy, episodic, often detailed and precise, down to the clothes her grandmother wore for the trip to the races that netted her her husband, weave in and out of Veronica’s sad travel to Brighton in England to claim her brother’s body. Veronica’s is an overwhelming desire to trace the sources of the crime in the relationships of a generation once removed. She needs to know the two men who competed for her grandmother’s love. There lies the truth that condemns Liam to death.
Enright’s uncanny sense of revelation by description explores the effects of grief:
So at lunch-time I am walking along the prom [at Brighton] and Liam is still, residually, alive, and I am imagining this place in the darkness, and the lapping around my waist of black salt water. Liam is in the air. The figures that pass are scribbled with the graffiti of his gaze. Everything they have spills over, or droops. An overweight child with breasts – a boy, it seems. An old man with a scab under his nose. A woman with a widening tattoo. A parade of lax flies and stained trousers and bra straps showing under other, shoestring straps. The living, with all their smells and holes.
The eye of grief disjointed out of synthesis finds disparate parts in the bodies of those who pass by. We might ask how graffiti can scribble figures, but the metaphor tells. What has happened to her belief in wholeness? In integrity? Liam’s life and death distort vision and make the quotidian an affront to be read.
Enright’s view is capacious; her Veronica, bewildered by a death, jolted into searching for its cause, faces the shock of realization that cannot leave her the housewife that she was. Often she is bewildered by her own actions – late night drives while her husband and children sleep when she revisits the lunatic asylum that housed her great uncle or the house in which her mother was raised. She speculates about an alternate life she might have lived in the USA with the American exchange student she knew years before in her college days. In the novel’s concluding section, Veronica has literally flown away, waking in Gatwick airport to her absence from her home. She decides to return.
In the gathering that is Liam’s funeral, Veronica faces a crisis and reconciliation. Her return to Ireland aboard a plane leads her to reflect: “you are up so high . . . and there is such a long way to fall . . . I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”
Little is simple. There are no easy answers. The past and its generations are a burdensome inheritance. Meaning is everywhere in the grainy particles of life. It’s ours to work out and pass on to those whom we engender. Enright’s first person narration is idiosyncratic. Her startling comparisons feel claustrophobic in the evocation of her character’s sense of limitation. I found myself closing the book after reading a few chapters in some attempt to come to terms with a voice that worried as it laid bare the tension of family life. We need no Tolstoy to tell us of the uniqueness of unhappy families.