“O cruel Death, give three things back,”
Sang a bone upon the shore;
“A child found all a child can lack,
Whether of pleasure or of rest,
Upon the abundance of my breast”:
A bone wave-whitened and dried in the wind.W. B. Yeats, “Three Things” (521)
Anne Enright's 2007 novel The Gathering appeared on the English-language literary scene like a new relative at a family reunion, entering a book market full of witness or survivor narratives and best-selling memoirs of painful childhoods. At first glance, the novel seems a near relation to these accounts. Its first-person narrator, Veronica Hegarty, tells the story of her beloved, ruined brother Liam. He has committed suicide by walking into the sea off the coast of England, and she is very nearly undone herself as she arranges the big family funeral, including engaging with her ten remaining siblings, and lives through the months immediately afterward. At the heart of the story are rising questions about sexual abuse that may have occurred when she and Liam were children, and a family's collusion with powerlessness.
The novel dramatizes a situation of what clinical literature calls post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), using a narrator in contemporary time to bring into language a prelinguistic experience buried in her past. This narrator, who will fill her narratives with what she knows to be misinformation as she tries out different optional story lines, and who clearly does not recognize all her biases or blindnesses, is nevertheless utterly reliable in that she explores honestly the emotional truths of each stage of her growth in understanding. She continuously re-casts her tale as the characters and events tangle and elude her, searching for a narrative framework that can accommodate her changing awareness. The novel is less about what happened than that people crucial to her life have colluded in various ways, with varying levels of active involvement, even across generations, to create great damage. Taking place during a five-month period, the narrator describes the process of coming to terms with her own trauma and that of her family. Liam, the family scapegoat and her own psychic double, takes with him her protection against the skeletons in her family's closet, and she has begun a dangerous emotional journey.