Sunday, November 11, 2007
Gathering the Past, Real or Not...
By Anne Enright
Every year after the Booker Award is declared, one thing that the critics ask is whether the book was worth the award. At most times, the answer is no, or perhaps not. You know, we love finding faults. Our generation has no Shakespeare.
The same thing happened after a writer called Anne Enright won this year's Booker. Anne who? And she won the coveted prize bypassing the likes of Ian McEwan, whose 'On Chesil Beach' was a better novel!
And 'The Gathering' is bleak, a despairing account of a crum-bling family drama, there is nothing profound happening.
This is a valid argument. 'The Gathering' has nothing profound about it. It's the story of Veronica and her account of her life and the life of her family spanning three generation, a life full of hopelessness and void, without any possible hope. It's a family drama like all family dramas, which Leo Tolstoy summed up bril-liantly in the opening sentence of 'Anna Karenina': "Happy fami-lies are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The Gathering is the story of an unhappy family, unhappy in their own share of secret and guilt. And, it starts with that (imaginary) crime: "I 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 un-certain event. I feel it roaring inside me - this thing that may not have taken place. I don't even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones."
Then why are we talking about the book? Because the novel succeeds as a work of art even if Veronica's story is bleak and without hope. The book begins to make sense once you have fin-ished reading it, and as the Booker jury claimed, it has the bril-liant last sentence almost never seen in a novel.
Yeah, that the catch. It's the language that counts, not the story. And Enright writes brilliantly. You have to give it to her. And she's not telling you a story, but a host of them, real or imaginary which she gathers around her as she mourns for her alcoholic brother Liam who had committed suicide by drowning at the sea, in a romantic, Virginia wolf way.
The title 'gathering' refers to the wake of Liam's death, and as 39-year-old Veronica returns to her family nine surviving He-garty siblings and their mothers, Veronica is haunted by this need to understand what went wrong with Liam and in doing so understand her own life, and as she puts it, finds out if there are any hurt lingering in the bones. So, she goes back to her grand-mother Ada and her love story, and begins to gather around her, her own life and those of her family.
It's not really important what she finds, but the journey, how dispassionately Enright delineates the events, past and present where the reality of the bleak sense of life shines like a polished gem.
The argument will continue whether the book is worth the award.
But none can deny that its a first-rate work of art. And we agree, our generation has no Shakespeare.