Monday, March 10, 2008

Writing with inevitability but without predictability (Books - The Gathering by Anne Enright)

My brother Liam loved birds and, like all boys, he loved the bones of dead animals. I have no sons myself, so when I pass any small skull or skeleton I hesitate and think of him, how he admired their intricacies. A magpie's ancient arms coming through the mess of feathers; stubby and light and clean. That is the word we use about bones: Clean.

As I sit here with my tea this morning, trying to think of what to say about Anne Enright's The Gathering, the 2007 Man Booker Prize winner, I end up with the sentence - it is an act of remembering. The reason I am finding that remarkable is because in the 100 or so pages I have read so far, the feeling that this book is a single act about a single person hasn't stopped yet. It is a song of painful memory of a woman for her brother sung from one deep single breath. The writing is exquisite. We know up front that she is trying to get at a memory of a certain event and through the rest of the book she retraces her steps. Her observations occur always as specifics, never as generalities, and as a result you are always right with her, wherever she is:

I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kettle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air.

My mother looks at this strange scene, as if it reminds her of something. Then she starts forward to where her tablets are pooled in a saucer, on the near counter. She takes them, one after the other, with a flaccid absent-mindedness of the tongue...

The reader knows right from the beginning that this is a scene in which the narrator is going to tell her mother that her brother, Liam, is dead. It is filled with the small details that make this an experience of people living life, rather than a story created of ideas about those people. I know so much about this narrator, knowing that she would finish filling and plugging in the kettle before taking off the wet coat. The events unfold with a life-like inevitability, but never with predictability and that's what I am loving about the writing so much.

Just one more excerpt for now. The chapters remembering Liam alternate with chapters imagining the early life of the narrator's grandparents. Without saying why it is important, here is one more excerpt that doesn't seem to turn this single moment of life into writing, it rather plops it on the page, still hot and breathing.

It is Lent. Nugent has given up rashers, sausages and all kinds of offal for the duration, also strong drink. His body has been cleansed by the workings of his soul - so the smell that rises from under his shirt has something of the spring air in it, a whiff of early morning soap, the quiet ming of a day's toil. The cloth of his suit is decently worn and the collar of his shirt is decently clean, and his life stretches ahead of him decently waxing into a solid middle age.

With one small interruption - because there is nothing decent about the glint in his baby eye, looking at Ada Merriman in the foyer of the Belvedere Hotel.


Anonymous said...

I've had this book on my mind for quite some time - your thoughts here seal the deal. Must get a copy. I think I would love it.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I love her writing - but I really disliked The Gathering. I had to force myself to finish it. Maybe it's too close to me or something ... I don't know. Sad tormented Irish people get a bit old (since that's my life, etc. etc.)

But damn, can she write. I love the bits about the blue eyes in the family - and my favorite part was when she wrote about her sweet American boyfriend. I can't remember why it struck me so hard ... something about, "I think I'm ready to be met."

Enright reminds me a lot of Proulx - although they do not have the same style, per se. It's just that when I first read Enright, as when I read Proulx, I thought: "Okay. So here is a voice I have not heard before."

Anonymous said...

Among the bloggers the feedback of this book is split in the middle. I'm glad you give a yay and I'll take it up and read for the Man Booker Challenge as well. Her writing seems very exquisite and observant. Thanks for a great review. :)