In graduate school I developed the habit of dog-earing the bottom of a page in any novel or play or essay that seemed “important.” When a writer delivered an impressively insightful observation or an uncannily pertinent allusion or just a truly gorgeous melding of words, I would carefully fold the bottom corner upward, the page to be reread once I’d finished the text. Most books — and because reading was the lifeblood of my studies, I finished as many as four or five a week — had six or eight little dog-ears. Some of my best loved had over a dozen. But Anne Enright’s Booker-Prize winning, 261-page novel The Gathering (Grove, 2007) is ridiculously swollen with 29 little bent-up bottom corners.
Why? Because Enright’s lucid and gritty prose explores topics of foundational importance to me and any other reader interested in language, writing and fictional renderings of maternity. The Gathering is the story of Veronica Hegarty, a 39-year-old mother of two young girls who recounts the gathering of her large Irish family upon the death of her favorite brother, Liam. A page-turner of the most sophisticated and satisfying kind, The Gathering moves not only forward to chronicle the Hegartys’ congregation, but also backward to explore a pivotal and shrouded event in Veronica’s and Liam’s childhood.
The novel opens as Veronica — whose occupation as a journalist is both important to the novel and appealing to literary mamas — initiates the slippery act of exposing the long-past incident: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not really sure if it did happen.” Having unexpectedly lost the dear younger brother whose secret she guards, Veronica’s reaction is more maternal than sisterly: “I have no sons myself.” Instead of sons, Veronica has a “high maintenance husband” (1) and two daughters, the eldest of whom is eight, the age at which Veronica and Liam endured the event at her grandmother’s house. The novel’s brief first chapter closes by explicitly placing Veronica’s inability to reveal truth in the context of family, the importance of Veronica’s maternal role deepening throughout the novel: “I do not have the truth,” she confesses, “or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. I stay downstairs while the family breathes above me and I write it down, I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones” (2).
Enright’s entire oeuvre, in fact, is steeped in maternity. Each of her novels, The Wig My Father Wore (1995), What Are You Like? (2000), and The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002) makes unique and compelling examinations of motherhood in Enright’s native Ireland — where she is rightfully and highly esteemed — as well as in New York, London and even 19th-century Paraguay. Motherhood also pervades Enright’s nonfiction collection Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. Any fan of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions should definitely get her literary hands on this smart, insightful, funny collection.
This is not to say that Enright is even remotely limited by the maternal landscape she depicts. In fact, it is her skilled writer’s sensitivity to language that allows for The Gathering‘s many compelling revelations. In one critical passage, our narrator explains, “I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my ‘keys’ and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died” (181). Liam’s sudden death leaves Veronica sole custody of the painful incident that she believes shaped both their lives, and as a result she is forced to examine the deceit and denial she has experienced as a result of it.
The fact that she alone knows this truth magnifies Veronica’s role not only as a mother who will pass on a legacy to her daughters but also as a daughter who received this legacy from her mother. Veronica’s mother birthed twelve children and had seven miscarriages. Now a doddering widow suffering from an unspecified form of senility, she fails to fully recognize her daughter when Veronica comes to tell her about Liam’s death (a good four or five of my dog-ears mark description of how maternity seems to have both physically and mentally destroyed this haunting older woman). While the mother is a victim of a strong procreational imperative compounded by Irish Catholicism, much blame is laid on her, principally for sending Veronica, Liam and Kitty to their grandmother’s house — the site of the incident — for a year when she was particularly overwhelmed by her nine other children. Veronica’s demented mother is oblivious to how she has failed her children: “The holes in her head are not her fault. Even so, I have never forgiven her any of it. I just can’t” (7). What Veronica cannot forgive is excessive reproduction, the kind of overwhelming maternity that many women experience as potentially threatening to a woman’s freedom and self-worth: “[W]hen it comes down to it, I do not forgive her the sex. The stupidity of so much humping. Open and blind. Consequences, Mammy. Consequences” (8).
Enright’s masterful treatment of sex — the root of her mother’s and a few of her own problems — accounts for a solid eleven of my dog-eared pages. Just as Enright establishes maternity as a focus early on, sex features prominently throughout the novel, its complex depictions being one of The Gathering‘s biggest triumphs. When telling her mother about Liam’s death, Veronica relates her anguish in sexualized terms: “I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling — somewhere between diarrhoea and sex — this grief that is almost genital” (7). Later in the novel Veronica attempts to downplay the importance of the sexual act: “[T]here is something so banal about things that happen behind closed doors, these terrible transgressions that are just sex after all. Just sex.” Even as she tries to diminish its significance — “just sex” — the paragraph immediately widens to encompass corporeality, maternity and even language: “I would love to leave my body. Maybe that is what they are about, these questions of which or whose hole, the right fluids in the wrong places, these infantile confusions and small sadisms: they are a way of fighting our way out of all this meat.” Directly addressing her reader in an intimate parenthetical phrase, our narrator further links sex and the body with language that is literally seminal: “(I would like to just swim out, you know? — shoot like a word out of my own mouth and disappear with a flick of my tail).” This fantasy, though, is immediately dashed with the abrupt phrase, “because there is a limit to what you can fuck and with what” (140).
In addition to blaming her mother for “the sex” that is problematic for all women in the book, our protagonist would also like to blame her now-vacant senile mother for the novel’s central incident. On the night of her brother’s wake the adult Veronica tries to reveal the childhood incident, but her panicked and confused mother only repeats, “‘What are you saying to me?'” which inspires Veronica’s conclusion: “A mother’s love is God’s greatest joke” (213). Our narrator goes on to silently accuse, “The year you sent us away…you were not there to comfort and protect,” only to admit that blaming her mother for her brother’s tragedy is problematic: “Who is to say what is the first and what is the final cause?”
Veronica’s inability to share this foundational information further links the verbal with the maternal. Ultimately the reader understands that these dozen children have effectively insulated their mother from the truth, the siblings’ lifelong refrain being, “Don’t tell Mammy!” As her many siblings gather for the wake, Veronica’s discomfort finds expression in the private lament, “I never told Mammy the truth. I never told any of them the truth” (207).
The absent mother and the oblivious maternal grandmother thus create the image of the maternal as a force compounded by Catholicism and co-opted by biology. Although neither Veronica’s mother nor her grandmother protects the children, Enright’s is not an entirely bleak picture. Veronica’s role as mother, of only two children as opposed to her mother’s nineteen pregnancies, provides The Gathering with an additional, optimistic message. The opening chapter’s introduction of catharsis through truth-telling emphasizes Veronica’s daughters as a repository of hope: “You cannot libel the dead, I think. You can only console them. So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach” (2). These daughters, both deftly and realistically described in unique and ambivalent relationships with their mother, provide the novel’s most redemptive aspect. I dog-eared not only the bottom but also the top of the page describing Veronica’s reaction at her brother’s funerary Mass late in the novel:
I try to believe in something, just for the heck of it. I pluck some absolute out of the air, some expanding thought that will open in my head like ether — God, or the future, or the greater good. I bow my head and try to believe that love will make it better, or if love won’t then the children will. I turn from the high to the humble and believe, for many seconds at a time, in the smallness and the necessity of being a mother. (228)
Indeed, even as Veronica gives in to the temptation to abandon her family when overwhelmed by the secret she alone now holds, it is her girls who tether her to a worthwhile reality: “But there is no leaving the girls, they are always in me….They are so beautiful. Wherever I touch, I can conjure the silk of their hair, and think it a great and quiet victory to have them in the world” (257). The girls may always remain with her, but the essential worthiness of her role as a mother stems in part from being mother to only two relatively independent girls, girls who allow her freedom. In calling each of them by their first and middle names–notably not their patriarchal surname–for the first time near the close of the novel, Veronica emphasizes the crucial independence that her girls allow her: “Rebecca Mary and Emily Rose. They stay with me now in my sleep. They are quite patient. They turn away for a while, and let me be” (257).
When Veronica decides to return to her family in the final pages, she resolves to tell the truth: “I know what I have to do–even though it is too late for the truth, I will tell the truth…(but don’t tell Mammy!)” (259). While acknowledging her inability to communicate with her mother, she considers the possibility of healing the loss of Liam (synonymous with the loss of her own childhood and innocence, which are tied to her brother and the event). She will mend her loss by having a son. “I stand in the queue for tickets and I have to close my eyes suddenly. I stand there with…my hand pressed against the lurching, empty feeling in my stomach — the future, come back to annoy me. Some new soul, with eyes like plums. A boy” (260). The idea, though, is replaced with a more immediate desire: “And though it would be amazing to have another child, this is not what I want most…I just want to be less afraid. That’s all” (261).
At the book’s end, I was left with an overall sentiment expressed on yet another page I’ve dog-eared at both the top and the bottom, a sentiment that other daughters who are mothers will surely appreciate. The notion lies at the heart of Enright’s excellent achievement in The Gathering and is central to the healing that the reader is privileged to have witnessed: “God how I hate my family, these people I never chose to love, but love all the same” (259).