Veronica Hegarty’s grief and anger are knitted so closely together the friction created by these emotions sparks an electric-like pain constantly passing through her frame. It is the power of emotion behind its dark humour that makes this book such good reading. Veronica who lives in Dublin, Ireland and is grieving because her brother, Liam, has committed suicide by putting rocks in his pocket and walking into the sea just outside the English resort town of Brighton. She is angry at the passivity of her parents who created a family of thirteen children; the survivors of her mother’s seventeen pregnancies. She blames these parents for blindly making babies out of some primordial demand of religion and culture without any thought of the consequences. However, what she cannot reconcile is the fact that she is only a year younger than this brother who has come to such a sad end but somehow she has managed to survive her childhood and build a reasonably happy life.
It has fallen to Veronica to collect her brother’s remains as only she, among her siblings, has the financial resources to do so. She is in her late thirties, married to a successful stockbroker at the height of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon… there are problems within the marriage but the impression given is that they are not insurmountable. She has two young daughters who are cherished and cared for in a way that would have never been possible in a large family… she is attentive to the very air these little girls breath.
The first thing Veronica must do is break the news of Liam’s death to her mother; her widowed mother who is always sweet-tempered but in the stupor of her dotage barely remembering Veronica’s name. Then Veronica begins the voyage to England in order to identify the body and reclaim it for a traditional Irish wake, that is to say a gathering, of all the family back home in Dublin. However, I do not think this gathering is the one referred to in the title. My sense is that this novel is about Veronica gathering up her memories of childhood and her family’s history in order to come to some understanding of how Liam could have felt such despair and ended his life while she, coming from the same background, could be blessed with such an abundance of happiness in the love of her own children. These memories have the potential to consume her in a sort of immolation of the spirit as if she held within her too much joy for one person to handle.
Veronica identifies Liam’s body and makes the arrangements for its transportation but returns to Dublin before it arrives, as there must first be an autopsy. While waiting she goes on a frantic tour of her memory to try to discover why Liam had been so badly damaged. She keeps coming back to a time when she was just eight years old and Liam nine. She, Liam and another sister, Kitty, were sent to live for a year with their grandmother. She does not trust her childhood memories entirely recognizing that some memories can be dream-like stories told to oneself, but nonetheless, Veronica knows something happened that hurt Liam. This was the year her mother had a nervous breakdown due to postpartum depression and so the three children were sent into exile to take the pressure off the household while she convalesced.
As Veronica struggles to reconcile herself to Liam’s death she allows herself to consider a suppressed memory that was never spoken or discussed with Liam. Imagined or real Veronica tells herself that her grandmother turned a blind eye to what was going on in her household preoccupied with keeping a roof over her and her husband’s head. Grandmother Ada loved the charming Charlie but Charlie was addicted to racetrack gambling to the detriment of all his family. As these recollections are playing out in Veronica’s mind she engages in self-destructive behaviour as her rage and confusion accelerates. She paces the floor at night drinking wrecklessly then getting into her car to drive drunk in the deserted streets, imagining she is accompanied by an accusatory corpse in the front passenger seat slumped over the dashboard. She goes home to bed as her husband is getting up to go to work. She sleeps all day until the children come home from school and after they do their homework and are tucked into bed the drinking starts again.
There is little action but there is so much feeling and the recalling of the past… what makes this a good book? I have decided it is the finesse with which the author uses language to work through the turmoil of Veronica’s memories and the loss of the beloved brother. Emotions are wordless in their raw state and can be expressed physically as a scream if there is pain or by the quiet act of folding one’s hands if there is peace. When words are used to express emotion how prosaic to say: she is sad, she is angry she is confused, she is resentful. This novel is a journey through memory and emotion by way of a masterful mining of the poetry within the English language. (Sorry for the use of the word mining… it is not exactly right but the best I can think of). Here is an example of what I mean from page one paragraph two but you can open this book to any page and find writing just as beautiful.
My brother Liam loved birds and, like all boys, he loved the bones of dead animals. I have no sons myself, so when I pass any small skull or skeleton I hesitate and think of him, how he admired their inticacies. A magpie’s ancient arms coming through the mess of feathers; stubby and light and clean. That is the word we use about bones: Clean.
… a paragraph full of well chosen words that makes me hold my breath as I read them.