As the years go by, certain annual events seem to confirm the feeling I have that time is speeding up. Big Brother, a seemingly permanent fixture of idle summer television, comes sooner every year, and every new crop of imbecilic hopefuls becomes more and more indistinguishable from the last; a perennial army of buffoons lavishing in their own lunacy. As we approach Halloween, it is hard to believe a year has gone by since ghoulish gimmicks last bedecked the shops; it seems like only yesterday that I last sported my bloodstained vampire cape. It also seems like yesterday that Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ won last year’s Man Booker Prize 2006; a relative newcomer who the bookies had placed as fifth out of six in the shortlist.
This year’s competition was just as unpredictable. Ian McEwan, who won the prize in 1995 with ‘Amsterdam’, paradoxically regarded as one of his weaker novels, threatened to pull off a similar feat this year with his novella ‘On Chesil Beach’, a taut and carefully crafted piece, albeit one which ultimately pales alongside ‘Enduring Love’ and ‘Atonement’, generally viewed as his masterpieces. Few would have predicted that Irishwoman Anne Enright’s fourth novel, ‘The Gathering’, would be the book to deny McEwan a second glory. Dismissed by leading critics for its purportedly unredeemable negativism, and listed a rank outsider alongside ‘On Chesil Beach’, Nicola Barker’s epic ‘Darkmans’ and Lloyd Jones’ majestic ‘Mister Pip’, just what could have induced the esteemed Booker panel to award Enright’s bleak family saga the literary world’s most coveted prize?
In an age obsessed by the internet, globalisation and religious fundamentalism, ‘The Gathering’ is refreshing for its timeless plot; a family bereavement prompts a middle-aged nouveau-riche housewife into a stifling, existential panic. As nine siblings converge in Dublin at the funeral of their brother Liam, Veronica, the sister closest to the dead man, feverishly traces the origins of the Hagarty Clan, trying to pinpoint the moment the sorry fate of her family was sealed. The tone is clear from the book’s front cover; a half-burnt, distorted photo of an apparently content three-generation family squinting into a camera against a bucolic backdrop. Correspondingly, the narrative of Veronica is an embittered and emotionally warped interpretation of how her family was not, underneath the surface, the happy unit observers viewed it to be. Behind this façade of familial solidarity was a sordid history of child abuse, neglect, and the inability of a mother to remember the names of all her children.
Veronica’s narrative stings with its unflinchingly pessimistic outlook. Chance did not determine her family history, it was merely sex. It was the fact that Lamb Nugent failed to win the heart of Veronica’s grandmother Ada that induced him to molest her grandson Liam for consolation, ultimately resulting in Liam’s alcohol induced suicide. Veronica was conceived, like her nine living siblings and her mother’s numerous miscarriages, merely because her parents, being Catholics, refused to use contraception. And, as she consistently ponders to herself through her book, to what avail do they all exist? “I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out if, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers. I want to call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board and a megaphone.”
Amidst all Veronica’s furious, acerbic narrative, it is paradoxically surprising how much ‘The Gathering’ often comes across like a sober, mature ‘Generation X’. Underpinning this ill-fated and impassioned family portrait is a voice of grimly rational intelligence, which, as in Douglas Coupland’s groundbreaking 1991 novel, questions our role in the modern world. Are the daily rituals we seem to drift towards in middle age; the corporate handshakes, the bad sex, the obsessive concern with the behaviour of our children, of any importance other than the fact that they distract us from being the people we want to be? A key line in the second album by Indie misfits ‘Mansun’ appositely sums up Veronica’s despair: “Life is a compromise anyway.”
Importantly, this existential fear does not come across as a diatribe. Veronica’s narrative skips seamlessly from generation to generation, from her imaginings of the courtship of her grandparents, to her present day marital problems, where her description of sex recalling Sylvia Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’ with its detached disgust: “I love my husband, but I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.” There is a strange, lulling rationality to the ordering of these nightmarishly pungent fragments of memory which makes the reading of ‘The Gathering’ an almost hallucinatory affair, jolting us with each new familial revelation and leaving us entranced throughout.
Despondent and brooding as its content clearly is, the text is imbued with a promise of redemption and escape from the miserable family cycle which excites our curiosity to the last page. If it were merely a fatalistic tragedy, the book would not succeed like it does. Vernonica’s caterwauling, often histrionic narrative results from a mid-life crisis brought about by the unceremonious suicide of her brother, which, whilst being the summit of the family’s misfortune, also, by implication, will bring about a reversal of fortune, signified by new life to replace the old.
In some ways ‘On Chesil Beach’ drew upon very similar themes to ‘The Gathering’. It details the wedding night of a history student and musician, and how their different attitudes towards sex scupper their future happiness, just as sex, at the wrong time, with the wrong person, is often viewed as the enemy in ‘The Gathering’. However, whereas ‘On Chesil Beach’ is essentially a moralising book, ‘The Gathering’ has a delicious ambiguity which makes it one of the most refreshing Booker prize winners for years.