The Booker Prize is known as much for its occasional mis-fires as it is for recognising and rewarding brilliance. One thing's for sure; this 2007 winner is unlikely to trouble future compilers of 'Best of Booker' lists. In some ways it is surprising that it won simply because it is so close in its central themes to the winner two years before, John Banville's The Sea, which also deals with dysfunctional relationships, childhood memories, and the guilt and grief felt after a family death. But while Banville's book is a must-read masterpiece and worthy prize-winner; The Gathering is not...
This reader's frustration with The Gathering was amplified by the fact that it starts wonderfully and raises expectations to a level that it ultimately disappoints. There's no doubting Enright's 'technical' writing skills, and she has a particular way with metaphor, and a dark humour runs through her work. The opening chapter, only two pages long, is brilliant, setting the scene, establishing intrigue and a sense of dread - what memories, however uncertain, will the narrator invoke?
The novel reaches its high-point in Chapter 2 as the narrator goes to break the news of her brother's death to her sainted mother, and this big, brawling Irish family's history begins to spill out and show its cracks. But from here, as Enright has her narrator imagining - in endless detail - the lives and thoughts of her grandparents' generation and the hazy memories from her own childhood, in order to bring sense to her own situation now, the book begins to suffer seriously from being over-written and a complete loss of narrative momentum. At only 250 pages, the book feels twice as long, and comes across as a good short-story that's been stretched un-naturally to fit a novel's form.
While the book is essentially an exploration of uncertainty and memory, and how family history defines the self, I feel that Enright uses this to get away with some lazy thinking. For example, we are asked to accept that the brother's suicide was an absolutely inevitable outcome stemming from the abuse he suffered as a child. Really? An exploration of why some children 'survive' abuse and others don't, might have been more helpful - what else was in Liam's pysche that drove him into a life as an alcoholic drifter? Was that as responsible for his death as what happened to him as child? Enright's abstract and experimental style seems to imply that this doesn't matter, it's not really what the book is 'about' anyway, which is true enough but seems like a cop-out to me.
While none of Enright's characters, including the narrator, are exactly sympathetic, the men are particularly unpleasant and to my mind close to an easy stereotype. Enright is too artful to write that she thinks men are essentially rather thick and emotionally one-dimensional beings, led not by their brains but by what's in their trousers, but that's clearly her view based on the characterisations here. Sex is a heavy underlying theme, in Enright's view an elemental force that drives us to do things we would rather not do, and at no point is it suggested that to be human is actually to have the intelligence and will-power to overcome animal instincts. This leaves the book with a rather depressing, fatalistic taint, and the ending, where a glimmer of hope is offered to narrator Veronica, seems a slightly artificial 'Hollywood-ending' and at odds with everything that's gone before.
Oh well, not a disaster then, because of the quality of the writing, but certainly not a high-point in the Booker Prize's chequered history.