Enright is a writer of incredible subtlety and insight
Veronica and her siblings, the nine surviving Hegarty children, gather in Dublin for the funeral and wake of their brother Liam. Enright’s The Gathering is a saga of a uniquely dysfunctional family and the best novel about grief and bereavement that I have read. It’s intelligent, profound and deeply moving, and the writing is breath-taking.
Enright captures the peculiar relationship of close siblings perfectly. It is not about love – you don’t “love” a close sibling just as you don’t “love” your arm. They are a part of you. When they die, you are broken. It is a hard, bitter, angry book because the grief you feel when a close sibling dies is a hard, bitter anger. An anger that is as close to madness as makes no difference. Grief colours everything, and makes everything – the past, the present, present loved-ones – unknowable and unreachable, for a time.
Veronica tells the story of her grandmother, acknowledging that the story she tells is imagined, unreal. I see this as a metaphor for the veil of unreality that bereavement places between the bereaved and external reality. Because you can’t tear down the veil, you live in a capsule in a state akin to madness, unable to reach out to those who you love[d]. Unable to connect with their attempts to love you and bring you back. And resenting their efforts to do so.
This novel is not “about” the revelation of what happened to her brother. What may or may not have actually happened is ultimately not important. Rather, it is a novel that describes the symptoms of Veronica’s grief. One of these symptoms is her attempt to understand the past and to “see” (reveal) what happened to her brother. (Veronica’s disconnection from her husband and children is another symptom. Her bitterness towards her surviving family is another.)
Veronica attempts to make sense of her grandmother’s history is symptomatic of how the bereaved – lost in their capsule of unreality – struggle to make sense of their experience. That struggle can lead us to misinterpret both what we see and the meaning of what we do. We do irrational things but think they are significant and rational choices. We misunderstand events in the past and present, yet think we are being clear-sighted and insightful. Or we remember things in the past that were true then, and think that they are the key to the present. We grasp at straws in our attempts to find something tangible to hold on to. Meanwhile our sense of the reality going on around us seems heightened and intense, yet we at the same time disconnect from it.
Above all, we get very, very lost in the whole experience. Lost, desperate, confused, angry and alone. And so very sad.
We, we we. Clearly I mean me. This was my experience of bereavement and I had never read it as I experienced it, until I read The Gathering. No other author past or present has so accurately represented what I lived through. Enright is genius, capturing the state of grief sublimely, succinctly and with subtlety.
Find The Gathering on Amazon and at other bookstores.
You might also like: Big Bother | Lionel Shriver