Close Reading: Anne Enright’s The Gathering

The opening chapter of Anne Enright’s The Gathering presents the darkness of humanity as a universal concept by relating the macabre as a form of normalcy and a point of intrigue. By focusing on the narrator’s internal conflict — whether or not to expose her brother’s secret — and by juxtaposing the narrator’s domesticated life with a haunted past which has been distorted through memories, Enright enables readers to easily empathise and accept the narrator’s attempt to ‘libel the dead’.

Internal conflict often spawns from either two opposing values or the struggle for dominance between the rational mind and the emotional side. Immediately, the narrator reveals an internal conflict, as well as the need to resolve it, as her motivation for recounting the story. She is haunted by an event from her childhood which she struggles to fully understand. The narrator explains a ‘need to bear witness to an uncertain event’ which is ‘roaring inside’. This personification of her desire to relate events conveys a sense of fierce confusion and turmoil. 

However, her deep desire to reveal the story is countered by a feeling of guilt over telling the truth. She is reluctant to expose her brother, Liam, reasoning that she should not ‘libel the dead’ only ‘console them’. This poses a contradiction between her rational side and the one that is ruled by emotions, and also provides a picture of her inner turmoil where she struggles to come to terms with what had happened — not necessarily Liam’s death, but what may have led to it. 

The narrator begins to justify her decision by offering a picture of a half-life she has been living. As a mother of two (assuming that the narrator is a woman) she fails to compartmentalise her domesticated life from the life of a child-witness. When she describes the scene before her as a ‘sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky’, this creates an ominous mood. Where ‘sandy rim’ provides a sense of calm, ‘stony beach’ opposes it by providing a feeling that something bad is about to happen, just as ‘slow’ is countered by ‘turbulent’. Furthermore, when she metaphorically rolls ‘with the sea’s loud static’, this imagery shows a clear disconnection from the present where everything she experiences is half-felt, as if seen through a veil. The consequence of keeping quiet has been affecting her life, and she desperately wishes for some sort of closure. 

However, all she has is her own unreliable memories that keep her up at night, pushing her to over-turn the event, unable to draw any sort of conclusion. The narrator calls these ravings the ‘sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns’. This personification further proves her mental distress. The word ‘spawn’ indicates that this conviction to which uncertainty gave birth is highly unwelcome. (Or perhaps, the usage of this word is to cleverly link this paragraph to the previous ones where the narrator mentions Liam’s fascination for small animal bones.)

This struggle between libelling the dead and consoling them makes for an unreliable narrator. Adding on to this is a second conflict, one that has to do with trying to make sense of the past, which infiltrates the narrator’s life. She craves to make peace with it. From the beginning, the narrator tries to appear rational by stating that she ‘would like to write down’ what happened, but this is immediately countered by her ‘need to bear witness’ to the event she feels is ‘roaring inside’. This shows how important it is to her. However, she later claims that ‘it does not matter’, which leads to a paradox. Her night ravings further shows her desperation for any form of closure, real or otherwise imagined.

People are shaped by the circumstances into which they put themselves. Sometimes it is the land, sometimes it is the people they gather around themselves, sometimes it is the ideas they internalise and distort. This last seems to play a big part in the story.

The passage manages to draw the readers in through its description of the macabre, normalising the morbid fascination that otherwise would be too shameful to address. Beginning with a retrospection that is reminiscent of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, the narrator preambles about her childhood and introduces an event that will surely lead to loss of innocence. By calling it ‘a crime of the flesh’, she opens up several possibilities: infidelity, domestic violence, incest, even animal cruelty. She carries on to explain that ‘the flesh is long fallen away’, although she is ‘not sure what hurt may linger in the bones’. This means that the incident led to a death, but whose? Readers immediately find out that it is Liam’s.

Liam’s love for the bones of dead animals is described as ‘like all boys’. This implies that everybody has this fascination, that it is nothing to be ashamed of, which allows readers to easily forgive Liam, even sympathise. Every time she sees small animal bones, the narrator thinks of her brother, which means Liam is always there, in the back of her mind, in the bones of dead animals, which further proves she is unable to find closure.

Next is the purification of the macabre. When the narrator describes a magpie’s arms as ‘ancient’ and ‘stubby and light and clean’, she redefines the thieving, gold-snatching conception readers may have of the animal. She insists that this is the ‘word we use about bones: clean’. The pronoun ‘we’ pushes onto the readers a sense of involvement, that this is their belief. By ending the chapter with ‘I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones’, the entire passage ties in nicely. (It may also indicate that this story she writes down in bone-clean sentences is inherent to who she is, and the only way to make peace is to lay them out to be examined.)

So, does The Gathering have to do with what happened in the past, or is it about what the narrator made of it? The answer could be either or both. Interestingly, an em dash is used between ‘I feel it roaring inside me’ and ‘this thing that may not have taken place’. This emphasis on the latter part of the sentence may represent the genre of the novel. The Gathering may well have to do with the narrator’s troubled psyche. Did this event actually happen or is it conjured up in the mind? Although the answer to this question is inconclusive, one thing is certain: this story will be confusing and retrospective, with lots of supposes, perhaps and what-ifs.

Personally, I at first expected it to be a thriller but as I read on, I thought, perhaps a mystery? In the end, I decided that it is literary, an exploration of a human psyche and the unreliability of memories. With no further knowledge beyond the given passage, it can even be a narrative nonfiction or an autobiography. The possibilities are endless. However, if The Gathering is fictional (which the passage leans towards), be it genre or literary, it is guaranteed to revolve around any combination of these themes: life, death, love.

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