Thursday, March 4, 2021

Book 274: The Gathering

"I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass."

Dates read: November 7-11, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

It's weird what I do and don't remember from my childhood. There are moments that stand out in my mind clearly, the feeling of swinging on the swingset at home and launching myself into the air, of jumping on the trampoline, of the stinging black flies on the shores of Lake Superior. And then there are things that I know happened but I couldn't provide a clear recollection of if you paid me. And then there are some in-between, neither clearly recalled nor completely blank, that almost feel like memories out of dreams. Did they actually happen? Was I just told about them so many times I feel like the memory is my own now? Or did I just make them up playing pretend and they stuck?

Human memory is deeply fallible. Being a psychology major who went to law school, I was and continue to be horrified at the credibility of eyewitness testimony. We think of memories as files in a cabinet or videos that can be played on demand, but in actuality they're as malleable as clay. The unreliability of memory is key to Anne Enright's The Gathering. In it, Veronica Hegarty is reuniting with her large family in Ireland for the funeral of one of her many siblings...Liam, with whom Veronica was particularly close. She meditates on her current unhappiness while also trying to figure out her brother's, who died from alcoholism, and to what extent the way their lives have turned out is rooted in a hazy memory from their childhood.

To explain what might have happened, Veronica spins stories about her grandparents. She does not know to what extent any of them might be true, but she's desperate to explain the complex bonds between them that might shed light on what occurred later, when she and Liam were living with them. In the meantime, her own marriage is struggling to survive, and going back home and dealing with all of her relatives again further stresses her. It's a portrait of a woman at a loss, trapped in her own ruminations, needing a path forward but (to borrow a line) borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Anyone who's wondered if we can ever really escape from ourselves and our pasts will appreciate Enright's work here. Her language is lush and evocative, and Veronica's struggle to understand her family history and her own life is rendered powerfully. That feeling of childhood memory, the way the details get harder to recall the more we try, and the challenge of trying to extract meaning from it is also captured poignantly. Veronica's heartache feels real, wanting neither to fall into the easy trap of blaming everything on family but unable to figure out how much blame to assign where.

While I appreciated aspects of Enright's craft, I did not like this book. It's often confusing to read, moving back and forth in time without clarity. When we're introduced to Veronica's imaginings about her grandparents' early lives, it's not clear until later on that these are rooted in nothing more than her own imagination. And while I'm no prude, I have never read a book so fixated on describing erections in my life and hope I never do again. While it kind of made sense, based on what's revealed over time, it was awkward and honestly unnecessary. It took me out of the book entirely. And although it's less than 300 pages long, the book honestly feels like it's been puffed out and was in real need of editing. Usually the Booker is a good list for me in terms of books I'm likely to enjoy reading, but this one just did nothing at all for me. I do not recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: We Are Our Brains

Two years ago, I was reading: Going Clear

Three years ago, I was reading: Good Omens

Four years ago, I was reading: Die A Little

Five years ago, I was reading: The Good Earth

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