The Fantasy Family

The Gathering

by Anne Enright.
Grove/Black Cat, 261 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Gathering, title of the winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, refers ostensibly to the assembly of a large family for the wake and funeral of one of its members, but we might also consider the book, the fourth novel by Irish writer Anne Enright, as a gathering of powerfully unpleasant images involving the superimposition of sex, death, and decay. Early on, the narrator and main character, Veronica Hegarty, imagines Lamb Nugent, a friend of the family and long-thwarted suitor of her grandmother, masturbating over memories of his dying sister:

The room they grew up in was full of the wet rattle of her chest…. His own puberty going unnoticed …as her little breasts swelled under the nightdress. She moved towards death and womanhood at the same pace, the nipples like a spreading bruise, the breasts growing, and failing to grow, over lungs hard with disease…. When he holds his penis in the nighttime, it feels like her thin skin; always damp, never sweating. Because, in those days, people used to be mixed up together in the most disgusting ways.

Such unsavory mixing, however, is not only a thing of the past. At thirty-nine, a mother of two young daughters, Veronica often feels a profound revulsion on finding herself in bed beside her successful businessman husband, Tom:

I wake to a livid tumescence on his prone body; a purple thing on the verge of decay…a cock so purple and dense it was a burden to him.

Waking in general in this novel means waking to horror, or “the slow, slick, screaming heebie-jeebies,” as Veronica puts it. So the funeral wake that prompts the gathering of the Hegarty family becomes an extended opening of the mind to ugly images. At the top of the stairs of her old family home Veronica encounters, or imagines encountering, the now long-dead Nugent in an embrace with the corpse of his sister—“the tangle and slither of their tongues is endless and airless and cold”—while further down the stairs she runs into her deranged Uncle Brendan, buried years ago with other sufferers of mental illness in a mass grave:

Brendan’s bones are mixed with other people’s bones; so there is a turmoil of souls muttering and whining under his clothes, they would come out in a roar, were he to unbutton his fly….

Afflicted by these unhappy fantasies, Veronica is ever on the verge of retching, or gagging, and at one point recalls a “choking sense” that “I would die, my face jammed in filthy gabardine…a stranger’s cock in the back of my throat.” Death itself is a “rapist,” sex often “like killing someone or being killed,” and the female pubis takes on the pathetic, punished appearance of “the breast of an underfed chicken” or, again, a “spreading bruise.” This because “men fucked women—it did not happen the other way around.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Veronica wishes to “call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board…

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