Veronica Hegarty’s grief and anger are knitted so closely together the friction created by these emotions is like a bolt of electric pain constantly passing through her frame. The energy she is emitting is a cousin to sex and not to push the analogy too far, it is the power behind the dark humour that makes this book such good reading. Veronica is grieving because her brother has just 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 procreating out of some primordial demand of religion and culture without any thought of the consequences. What she cannot reconcile is the fact that she, only a year younger than this brother, Liam has managed to survive her childhood and build a reasonably happy life.
It has fallen to Veronica to collect her brother’s body as she, among her siblings. has the financial resources to carry this out. She is in her late thirties, married to a successful stock broker at the height of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon… there are problems with 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 of her memories of childhood and her family’s history in order to come to some understanding of how Liam could have felt such despair as to take his own life while she, coming from the same background, could be blessed with such an abundance of happiness in the love of her own children that it had the potentioal 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 then returns to Dublin to wait as there must be an autopsy. While waiting she goes on a frantic tour of her memory to try and 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 when they and another sister, Kitty, were sent to live for a year with their Grandmother, Ada. She does not trust her childhood memories entirely but feels something did happen during that year and recognizes that some of what is childhood memory can be a dream or a story told to oneself. It was the year her mother had one of her nervous breakdowns due to post partum depression after a series of miscarriages. And so three of the children were sent into exile to take the pressure off the household while their mother 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 Charlie’s head. Ada loved the charming Charlie but Charlie was addicted to the racetrack to the detriment of all his family. So as this is playing out in Veronica’s head she is engaged in some self-destructive behavior in her rage and her confusion. She paces the floor at night drinking wine 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 so little action, there is so much pain and thrashing about… what makes this a good book? I have decided it is the finesse with which she uses language to work through the turmoil of Veronica’s memories and the loss of the beloved brother. Emotions are wordless in their original state and can be expressed physically as a scream if there is raw pain or if the emotion is joy the expression might be a quiet act such as folding one’s hands on one’s lap or if the there is anger one could punch a hole in the wall as stupid as that might be. If 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 from page one paragraph two but you can open almost any page and find writing just as beautiful:
“My brother Liam loved birds, 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 intricacies, 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.”
Reading those words I could taste their poignancy, stark without sentimentality and somehow ringing true. I was reminded of the bodies of dead herring gulls washed up on a stony beach and bleached white until their bones are pressed into the rock returning with the slowness of geological time to earth. The image could be sad but it is also beautiful. Anne Enright leads the reader into the tangle of the protagonist’s childhood and masterfully guides the way through the mangle of this maze to a place of redemption.