I always enjoy a good family drama and no one does families like the Irish – what is it about Irish stories that is so quirky and interesting? Perhaps it has something to do with what Tolstoy said … ‘All happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
Well, one particularly unhappy Irish family is the Hegartys in Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering. Told from Veronica Hegarty’s point of view, it’s about the nine siblings who gather at their mother’s home for the wake of brother Liam. Liam has killed himself, walking into the sea at Brighton, at the age of forty.
As Veronica organises the funeral and drinks rather too much, she ponders the events surrounding the time she and Liam spent at their grandmother Ada’s house. As Veronica considers connections between past and present, it eventually becomes clear that Liam isn’t the only family tragedy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Chicago to be precise, Robin Middlestein is stunned when her father walks out on his marriage, leaving her to deal with her mother’s terrible health worry and heartbreak. Edie Middlestein is morbidly obese and has been given an ultimatum by her doctor – to lose weight and exercise, or she will die.
Robin is not good in a crisis, while her brother Ben and his wife have their children’s bar mitzvah to organise. As Dad is trying out internet dating, Edie keeps on eating.
Yes, this is a Jewish story – but with the quirky characters, the arguments and the pressure to conform to tradition, there are obvious parallels between Jami Attenberg’s novel, The Middlesteins, and Anne Enright’s Booker prize winner. I read them back to back and enjoyed them both immensely, rattling through The Middlesteins in a couple of days, while taking my time with The Gathering with its rich writing and enjoying the sharp barbs of Veronica’s narrative voice.
Attenberg creates some amazingly vivid scenes: Edie’s course after course at an ethnic restaurant; the furniture burning in the yard outside Robin’s flat when she and her roommates discover bedbugs; the collision of emotions at the Middlestein twins’ bar mitzvah.
However, Enright must surely be the winner of the prize for best ever chapter opening sentences. Try these for size:
Chapter 25: ‘I saw a man with tertiary syphilis at Mass, once.’
Chapter 28: ‘The British, I decide, only bury people when they are so dead, you need another word for it.’
Chapter 33: ‘Suicides always pull a good crowd.’