We have a word for a woman whose husband dies, and vice versa. But we have no word for those who lose a brother or sister. Yet the bereavement of each leaves the bereaved experiencing much the same depth of loss. A whole part of their life is now remembered only by them, not by the brother or sister who shared it. The traditions and rituals of a shared childhood can no longer be carried out, not even remembered and mocked with hindsight and laughter. And the body that both hugged and kicked, that squashed up on the settee with to watch TV, fidgeted fretfully in the back seat of the car, is gone, never to remind you of other times with a careless shrug, or gesture or grin.
Anne Enright describes a sister’s loss in The Gathering. Veronica, one of twelve siblings has lost her brother Liam. As in all big families, siblings form partnerships or cliques, according to age or circumstance. Veronica and Liam were close, close in age but also because they were sent off together to live at their grandmother’s for a period when their mother was ill.
Now Liam, missing for several years, has turned up dead – suicide. He walked into the sea at Brighton, England, his pockets weighed down with stones, his heart weighed down with ... what? And Veronica has to deal with this. She has to tell her mother and her siblings, identify the body and get it back to Ireland, arrange a wake. She has to deal with her feelings too, which is so much harder. The shock and the bereavement take her back to the memories of childhood and, with a mind ripped apart by grief, she remembers.
She remembers their childhood and the trauma of being sent away and not knowing why. She remembers their adolescence at college and their travels to England. She remembers leaving Liam and coming back to Ireland to make something of herself. And so the guilt creeps in. The guilt of laughing at him when he was younger and struggling to understand himself, and of letting him laugh at himself, treat himself as one big joke. The guilt that she saw that education was a path leading them out of poverty and but when Liam strayed off that path she chose not to go looking for him and drag him back. The guilt of having created her own family with Tom, just two daughters loved and cherished as the individuals she and Liam had never been able to be. Such a different family from the one she experienced hreself, and the only one Liam ever knew.
This is where Anne Enright’s storytelling gift is revealed. This is not a misery tale, but it is raw and angry, savage at times. Yet the prose is liquid and lyrical, concise and personal. And as Veronica stumbles through her grief she tries to piece together a “reason” for Liam’s death, from her own perspective of how their parents treated them and what happened at their grandmother’s. She looks for the reason in the only place she knows, their family. She turns to a history she never experienced and pieces it together (or fabricates it completely perhaps?) from tiny snippets of her grandmother’s life. We as readers experience a gradual, very gradual, blurring of fact and fiction, of memory and invention, of shifts in perspective and jumps in time until we feel as disconnected and lost as Veronica herself.
The end of the novel finds Veronica ready to return to her family life, to the husband and two daughters she has not been able to focus on. She isn’t happy, she hasn’t “got over” Liam’s death but she calm enough, sitting at Gatwick Airport, to acknowledge that her family is her home and to chose to go there.
The end of the novel leaves the reader confused, about the grandmother’s life, about the strange Mr Nugent, and the abuse of the children; still no nearer understanding why Liam killed himself. We are no longer sure that Veronica’s story is any kind of truth at all. Our initial belief in her descriptions of her siblings as psychotic or controlling is shaken; her statements that her husband is having an affair don’t ring quite so true. We do believe that she loved her brother, that whatever else her childhood gave her, it gave her Liam to grow up with. We see how, with that swept away so suddenly and so cruelly, Veronica’s response is not extreme but explicable.
And for that we must thank the author, for an insight into a grief that so many suffer and yet so few write about.