A Twist of the Grave
Anne Enright’s narrator in The Gathering, Veronica Hegarty, initially seems to be a petty, bitter woman, a woman who’s lost her way in a gaggle of siblings. She vibrates with anger over past hurts, and it seems she’s embarking on a journey to wallow in those hurts. She doesn’t seem to know her true north, and her musings come across like gropes in the dark. She is obviously grieving over her brother, Liam’s, suicide, and she reveals that she is not “properly alive” (80); that, like her former lover, Michael Weiss, she merely exists. The difference between them, she says, is that he chose “just to exist [to] see what came his way” (81). Most striking is her rage at her mother for bearing so many children, which the reader may, at first, interpret to actually be anger that her mother doesn’t know her name. This notion is dispelled when Veronica inwardly erupts after dealing with the undertaker. She considers her “child-battered body [and is] proud of it…for the people that came out of it, feeding the grave. Feeding the grave!” (79) A-ha, says the reader. This, then, is a story about grief. But no—and yes. Yes; Veronica moves through the stages of grieving; she speaks of her memories and current experiences as though she is remembering them right now, going back and retracing the memory if she realizes she doesn’t have it right, or if she is lying to herself and the reader, and Enright presents the story as though it were a dialogue between two close friends. However, Veronica is also on a quest for the truth of her past, for the truth, period, for, as she says, the dead require it. Her quest begins in a haze of denial, not just regarding the fact of Liam’s death, but regarding their shared past; it begins with feeding the grave and ends with cam reilige, a twist of the grave that unexpectedly and ironically offers hope.
After Veronica breaks the news of Liam’s death to her mother, she muses about her grandmother’s romance with Lambert Nugent. Here, she says, is where the seeds of Liam’s death were strewn. She concocts a story about Ada’s and Nugent’s first encounter, and it isn’t until she’s moved through this short tale to the end that the reader realizes that she’s invented it, and then the reader wonders why. It seems odd, and it creates a surreal sense that the narrator is about to lead us on a labyrinthine path to nowhere. Can Veronica be trusted to tell us the truth about anything? This surreal quality is embedded throughout the entire narrative, and for good reason: this is how the mind works when working through the grieving process, and we are there with Veronica each step of the way.
Veronica brings us home to her husband, whom she alternately despises and loves. She’s almost apologetic about this, but defiantly honest. Her mind jumps to other childhood experiences, then it’s back in the present, dealing with everyday minutiae and funeral arrangements, then it’s back in the past again. And she ruefully acknowledges that she sucks: “If someone sucks, then they are the worst possible type,” she says, then she ends up “sitting still while the loud world passes by, with a long coffee spoon in my mouth, sucking” (83).
Veronica’s persistence in rooting out old memories is a means to survive. “This is how we all survive,” she says. “We default to the oldest scar” (97). But as it turns out, Veronica’s oldest scar does not lie in Ada’s past but in her own, although she believes it is Liam’s wound: at first she remembers seeing Liam molested by Nugent, but later on the memory turns out to be her own. Again, there is a surreal quality to the memory, and neither the reader nor Veronica is certain whose memory it is. Perhaps the memory belongs to Veronica, Liam, and Kitty, since all three of them lived in the house where the abuse occurred. Perhaps, in fact, it belonged to all of the children. This is left to the reader to decide.
In the beginning, Veronica is railing against her mother’s incessant breeding, and it seems this is her wild grief talking. She’s just lost her brother, and is now faced with both her own mortality and that of her siblings. In the end, however, Enright tantalizes the reader with the possibility that Veronica may either be pregnant or would welcome it. This is ironic because of Veronica’s refusal to attend the funeral of another relative when she was pregnant with her first-born, Rebecca; she was afraid of cam reilige, the twist of the grave, because it could have a decidedly negative effect on her baby. That Veronica is now “falling into [her] life” after dealing with Liam’s death is indeed, a twist of the grave.