The gathering of the title is in fact a wake which draws back together the scattered members of a dysfunctional Irish family.
Liam Hegarty has committed suicide by walking into the sea at Brighton with stones in his pocket, and his sister Veronica, closest to him in age, closest to him emotionally, takes upon herself the task of bringing the body home. But confronting the death of her alcoholic brother creates a crisis in her too, and brings her to the point of breakdown.
There is much in her own life she must take apart and examine, beginning with the anger has long harboured towards her parents for their feckless fecundity. The strain of continuous childbirth (they had a total of twelve children from nineteen pregnancies, a large number even by the standard of Irish Catholic families) leaves Veronica’s mother unable to properly function mentally to the extent that she cannot even remember her daughter’s name. Veronica is hurt and angry at this apparent amnesia, angry too at the way the children were themselves forced into a parenting role and had to bring each other up.
She and Liam were farmed out to their grandmother, Ada, when their mother was no longer able to cope with them, and she realises that it was here that something happened which fundamentally changed Liam’s nature and planted the seeds of despair that lead to his slide into alcoholism and subsequent suicide. Was he sexually abused? She struggles to uncover memories which she has suppressed for decades, not always sure if the images which fill her mind are accurate representations of what actually happened – or perhaps didn’t happen.
Most novels play out the past in flashbacks which make memory appear to be an instantly accessible video with every detail rendered distinctly. This is of course not at all how our minds work, and Enright shows how an apparently solid memory of an event has to be modified in the light of objective evidence. “I don’t know if I have the correct picture in my mind,” she says, and talks of “shifting stories and waking dreams” which she must sift through to find the truth.
“One of my strongest memories of Liam is him peeing through a wire fence” she says at one point, only to discover later in the novel that the fence was made of railings. If she can be wrong about small details, can she be so certain about the bigger picture?
The novel also deals with the way that pain and dysfunction can be passed on from generation to generation. Veronica cannot make sense of what happened in her grandmother’s house without making sense of the strange love triangle in which her grandmother found herself? Yet she has no access to that except through imaginative reconstruction.
The Gathering is perhaps the bravest and the most innovative of the novels which made it to the Booker shortlist, but with its exploration of death and loss and family pain it is often an unsettling read.