The Irish wake has become such a familiar trope in films and popular culture it takes a fiercely unsentimental novel like Anne Enright’s The Gathering, recent winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, to club the blarney out of it.
But by turns bleak and sexual, Enright has accomplished just that. As the novel begins, Liam, the wayward son in an Irish family of nine, has drowned himself in the sea. The job of picking up his body—and telling his story—falls upon Veronica, his manic, manically verbal sister.
Veronica begins both journeys in the present, then scissors back to the distant past, finding the root of Liam’s death in the courtship of her grandfather and grandmother, and in long-buried memories from her own childhood.
Enright is an intensely poetic writer, and she beautifully recreates the slippages of memory in The Gathering. The novel skitters back and forth across time, in and out of Veronica’s present life, where she is wracked by guilt and insomnia. Her marriage drifts.
Memory can be a retreat for Veronica, because her childhood wasn’t entirely pinched—aside from painful recollections, there are ones full of joy. Shards of her adult past, the lovers she took and the hell she put them through, place her vivid story into three-dimensions.
Sitting at her desk, writing this story, Veronica re-creates as much as she remembers. One imagines her furiously gathering threads to make a weave but forever finding that under certain light some turn out not to be the color she wants.
In the end, the book does close with a wake. It is a powerful scene, drenched in bathos and bitterness. “Suicides always pull a good crowd,” Veronica spits. But in showing us what came before—in the time between the news of a death delivered and the gathering which follows—Anne Enright has shown us a world of truth.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.