on 8 October 2009
What is it about the literary crowd? Why are they so different from the rest of us? This book got good reviews in the press and won the Booker prize, yet most readers didn't rate it at all, and neither do I. A novelist can just about get away with writing about a dreary subject (in this case the unlikable narrator's unlikable family) but only if the writing is really good. I found the pretentious style of this book to be grating and irritating, partly because of the author's attempts at making it 'literary' (lots of very short sentences, often just one word) and partly because of the constant first-person present-tense (I say, he says, etc) which isn't particularly unusual, but which becomes tiresome when combined with the lack of substance.
Apparently this book has sold by the hundreds of thousands on the back of all the initial praise, in which case there must be a hell of a lot of disappointed people out there.
on 17 September 2008
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.
on 26 May 2015
Sometimes deeply thoughtful, always truthful, frequently very funny, I know these people, we have the same heartbeat. I wish it weren't so bleak, I treasure the moments of humanity, but recognise the fragile, hopeless, dysfunction. I am a grandchild of such a large Irish family, and the generations before. The shoes are in place before the child begins to walk. All are loved, theoretically, some more than others. The differences are sharp and vicious. The stories of favouritism , preference, alliance and cliques uncomfortable. The longing for recognition and simple love as an individual, painful. I grew up thinking that a big loving family was exotic and magnificent. I learned, as I grew older, that they were all terribly alone, and that alliances were made and broken, over and over. Loved this book for something I can see as true.
on 9 September 2008
Oh dear ... what can one say about this book (that hasn't already been said by other reviewers certainly). I read this book for my book group and after the first 15 pages or so found myself thinking - right, let's get this book over and done with and get on to something interesting! The central premise was obviously the gathering of the relatives for Liam's funeral but Veronica (the narrator of the story) meandered from thought to thought and appeared to be obsessed with sex which become very tedious and boring after a while. The chapters and asides about Ada the grandmother seemed totally unnecessary and very odd and apart from the abuse part with Lambert Nugent could easily have been left out - except that would have made the book thinner than it was and was presumably just padding.
There was no real story to this book I found and although I could empathise with some of Veronica's feelings concerning her children and her siblings the whole thing was just a bit too odd and strange to make it a worthwhile read.
Can't think how it did win the Booker prize - who nobbled the judges!
One of the pleasures of being in a book group is that you find yourself forced to read books you never would have otherwise tried, and as a result, sometimes discover a wonderful work (one such example in my case is Jose Saramago's Blindness). However, the evil twin of that pleasure is the unmitigated pain of wasting precious time slogging through something you can't stand. Unfortunately, not only does this Booker Prize-winner stand firmly in that second category, it is the champion of it: the most hated book of the 70+ I've read for my bookclub, and the least enjoyable work of fiction I've read this year (out of roughly 100 or so books).
Unlike many other haters of this tedious book, I didn't find it particularly difficult reading. The unannounced shifts back and forth in time and place didn't leave me adrift so much as amazed at their clumsiness. Then again, the book is essentially a monologue of remembrance, and human memories are messy things, so I was willing to conditionally accept that messiness as part and parcel of the protagonist. Speaking of the protagonist (middle-aged Veronica Hegerty), many haters seem to focus on her unlikability as the source of the book's problems. Personally, I don't think that a protagonist needs to be likable in any way -- just interesting. But she's not interesting in the slightest, just (like the book itself), annoyingly self-indulgent. I suppose this could be construed as a kind of commentary on her yuppiesh generation, but that seems like grasping at straws. Moreover, there are no other characters to connect with. The entire story takes place within Veronica's head, and even though it's populated with various family members who allegedly mean so much to her (in a love/hate way), the reader never gets a sense of any of them.
The plot -- such as it is -- revolves around the suicide of one of Veronica's brothers, which sends her on a trip to Brighton to bring the body back to Ireland for the funeral (she is gathering the body to bring it back to a gathering of people -- clever). About halfway into the book the "secret" of this brother's lifelong depression is revealed, and it's both jaw-droppingly cliched and wholly simplistic and reductionist. My one hope was that this "revelation" would be the spark that lit a fire under the second half of the book -- but no, it simply plods forward at the same stultifying pace. Ultimately the book has nothing to offer: it has no telling insights into memory or regret, it rehashes the same tired cliches about growing up poor and Irish, its use of the unreliable narrator is rudimentary at best, and its not even notably bleak and depressing. I guess you could make the argument that many of these flaws are actually commentary on the flawed nature of humans, but this doesn't make it worth spending your own precious time on.
on 4 May 2009
I was always unwilling to align myself with the `Booker bashers' for I was convinced that the much-debated literary prize surely attracted the most accomplished fictional works currently being penned in English. I was right, of course, but having now read 13 winners and a number of short- and long-listed works I can only conclude that, as in all other spheres of human endeavour, mediocrity dominates and brilliance shines inevitably but rarely. For me, Anne Enright's rambling sexual history of a dysfunctional clan of Dubliners falls squarely in the mediocre category.
At the funeral of alcoholic Liam Hegarty who has drowned off the coast of Brighton, his sister Veronica probes the past for clues as to what really set in motion her brother's decline and demise. Equipped with a memory as dysfunctional as her family she uncovers (fantasises?) sordid goings on in previous generations and, despite the fact that her grandmother was a whore and some of the others possess the morality of garden frogs, the `revelation' when it arrives hardly seems an event likely to traumatise one of the Hegarty clan. Seesawing back and forth in time and between reality and fantasy, and replete with gratuitous and almost slapstick sexual descriptions, irritating single word sentences and single sentence paragraphs, the narrative becomes pretty confusing and none too interesting. Frankly, none of the characters are thinking human beings. As we learn more about their genitalia than their emotions (not surprising as that seems to be where their brains reside), it is difficult to care much about what happens and to whom (and nothing much does happen). It is not that The Gathering is a bad book, more that in the end it does not amount to much.
After reading- and not greatly liking- Enright's 'The Forgotten Waltz', I found that 'The Gathering' is in a different category altogether and is a beautifully written novel about how events in your childhood can screw you up for ever.
'The great thing about being dragged up is that there is no one to blame. We are entirely free range. We are human beings in the raw. Some survive better than others, that is all.'
This certainly isn't a plot-driven novel, but as narrator Veronica struggles to come to terms with her favorite brother's suicide, which threatens her own sanity, I found I couldn't put it down.
on 4 March 2011
Ann Enright has a gift for dissecting family dynamics and the peculiarities of the Irish family;death and the causes of the suicide are her main focus , but it is also a study of the memory and multi-sensory triggers;this is a work of Literature and not for those after an easy read, so not really suited for a holiday relaxing read nor one you can dip in and out of.For those who like a challenge , it has rich rewards in store,and will deepen your sense of the Irish family.Reminiscent of the novel Last Orders and the play Stones in His Pockets.Last OrdersStones in His Pockets
on 16 August 2011
when telling a story 'Begin at the beginning ... when you reach the end - stop', this book could have been much improved.
I tend to avoid novels that have awarded prizes, as in my experience, they tend to be too much like hard work, but I picked this one up anyway as the blurb on the back cover sounded quite interesting. Indeed it might been an interesting tale if told properly, unfortunately this turns out to be one of those convoluted narratives - flashing back between present and future - where the author seems happy to do anything with the story rather than to actually tell it!
This tale revolves round a large dysfunctional Irish family gathered to mourn an alcoholic brother who has committed suicide and is narrated by sibling Veronica, who apparently was closest to him. She has cashed in on her good looks by marrying well - cue lots of middle class angst about her comfortable lifestyle, successful husband (who may or may not be unfaithful) and her two beautiful children. She believes her brother Liam has been driven to his life of alcoholism/suicide through abuse he suffered as a child at their grandmother's home. We don't learn much about either Liam or the other siblings - just brief glimpses through flashbacks/present day at the funeral which is a shame as any one of them is likely to be more interesting than Veronica. We do learn a lot about her but the problem is that there really isn't a lot to know -she really isn't any different from any other middle class woman who has too much time on her hands.
I quite liked the author's writing style and snippets of the book are very well written and engaging. Actually it's probably more satisfactory if dipped into at random and read out of sequence rather than being read as a sequential narrative which ties together and makes sense. We generally expect when reading a novel that as we progress through the pages we will form a clearer picture of the author's intention, whereas here the more we read the more murky it becomes. We see events only through the eyes of Veronica, who proves to be a rather unreliable narrator. Clearly the scenes involving third parties such as her grandmother Ada/her `admirer' Lamb Nugent (where she was not present and which Ada would not have confided to her) are mostly speculation, later on we learn that a key scene where the claims to have witnessed her brother being abused was purely fantasy on her part.
In fact given that key elements of the story apparently exist only in Veronica's imagination, by the end of the novel we don't know if Lamb really sexually abused Liam or anyone else and we are left to speculate that perhaps this - like her assertion to an boyfriend that her grandmother was a prostitute - is just something she made up based on no solid facts whatsoever?
Disbelief can only be suspended so far and I'm afraid my patience ran out at this point, and I started to flick quickly to the end page. The only word to describe the ending is pure bathos. I wanted closure on the abuse story and could not really care less if Veronica came to terms with her marriage or not ... Still at least it confirms my beliefs about novels that have won prizes!
An unexpected gem of a book. I'm not normally keen on character driven novels, preferring those with more plot, but I made an exception for this one. I picked it up on holiday, a previous guest having left it behind, and didn't expect to think much of it, given that it's not a style of story I particularly enjoy. So it was very plesant surprise to find it beautifully written and probably the most gripping character-driven novel I have read.
The story focusses on the Hegartys, your classic literary large Irish family with numerous members all with their quriks and problems. Alcoholism features, as does confusion over sexuality and religion, and childhood abuse. So far, so cliched. But unlike many novels with these features, this one is written so well it doesn't really matter that this is familiar ground.
Narrated in the first person by one of the Hegarty children, the 'action' centres around the death and funeral arrangements of her brother Liam, with plenty of back history. It is full of witty observations and dark humour as well as some disquieting moments. In terms of pace, it moves very quickly given its subject matter and time frame, and I found it quite hard to put down. The short chapter structure probably helps.
I have knocked off a star for the lack of originality in the premise, and because the plot is rather weak and confused, but it really is a pleasure to read writing of this quality and I'd happily recommend it.