There are some novels that hardly need a plot at all. The writing in them is so good, and so exciting, that it is a justification in itself. The Gathering, my fifth Booker shortlist read, is just such a book, and I loved it. I couldn't imagine Darkmans having a rival for my affections at this late stage, but such is Anne Enright's novel. Although, to be fair, they're such different creatures that it is hardly possible to make comparisons between them. How *do* the Booker judges do it? Personally I would be paralysed by the choice I had to make. How could I proritise the offbeat excess of the one, over the keen literaryness of the other, when both are so precisely and delightfully executed? I'd combust. (Incidentally, there is an Ani Difranco song, one of my favourites, that expresses this dilemma perfectly: 'but then what kind of scale compares the weight of two beauties, the gravity of duties or the ground speed of joy?')
The Gathering sounds like a proto-typical 'Irish' novel. Veronica Hegarty is one of twelve siblings, the numerous offspring of a vague, depressive mother and a stern, insatiable father. Now at the age of 39 - indifferently married to a successful businessman and with two daughters of her own - she is called upon to deal with the aftermath of the suicide of her alcoholic elder brother, Liam, a man she both loved and hated in equal measure. As she arranges (and pays for) his wake and funeral, she begins to search for the causes of his death and to dig into the dark memories of their shared childhood. It becomes important for her to explain him, and through him, herself. Using her professional skills as a writer - she once wrote for a 'home style' magazine - she begins to (re-)create the past in the present:
'The seeds of my brother's death were sown many years ago. The person who planted them is long dead - at least that's what I think. So if I want to tell Liam's story then I have to start long before he was born. And, in fact, this is the tale I would love to write: history is such a romantic place, with its jarveys and urchins and side-buttoned boots.'
And so she spins a tale about her grandmother, Ada Merriman, her grandfather, Charlie Spillane and their mysterious old friend, Lambert Nugent. She starts in the 1920s and makes it about love, picturing Ada choosing between the two men and in doing so tying herself to them both in a bizarre triangle of obligation and resentment. She paints a beautiful, passionate picture of their young lives, as cinematic as any 1940s movie, although always with the caveat that none of it is true. She freely admits that: 'This is all romance.' It is her way of slipping into Liam's past by the back door, and of explaining away what she observed as a child: the strange relationship between Ada and Lamb in middle age, and the continual absence of Charlie. But it always clear that Veronica's story is not so much a love story, as it is a sex story. Sex keeps breaking into her narrative, no matter how hard she tries to exclude it: she imagines her grandmother as a whore, pictures her in bed with Charlie, and grappling on the floor with Lamb. All by the way of edging towards what she thinks she saw one day in her childhood - the nine year old Liam with his hand forced into Lamb Nugent's trousers.
Of course, she isn't a reliable narrator. She says she is certain of what she saw, and then that she isn't:
...even though I know it is true that this happened, I do not know if I have the true picture in my mind's eye... The image has too much yellow light in it, there are too many long shadows thrown... I think it may be a false memory, because there is a terrible tangle of things that I have to fight through to get to it, in my head. And also because it is unbearable.
And she admits that she would never have remembered it if: I hadn't been listening to the radio, and reading the paper, and hearing about what went on in schools and churches and in people's homes. I went on slap-bang in front of me and still I did not realise it. It is difficult to know whether Liam was abused, or whether Veronica needs him to have been, in order to reconcile herself to his fate. It is easier for her to believe that her brother was irreparably damaged by child abuse than that he was a drunk who, at the age of 40, had no hope left. Because Veronica is an angry woman, and bitter. She writes with an open and vitriolic fury that expresses any number of dissatisfactions that she feels about her life:
'So I am in a rage with every single one of my brothers and sisters, including Stevie, long dead, and Midge, recently dead, and I am boiling mad with Liam for being dead too, just now, when I need him most. Quite literally, I am beyond myself. I am so angry I have a second view of the kitchen, a high view, looking down...'
She is overcome with disgust for '...the living, with all their smells and holes. Liam was always a great man for people's holes, and who stuck what into which hole.' She has everything she could ever want: a five-bedroomed house, a successful husband, two pretty-in-pink daughters and a Saab. She can buy anything she likes. There is a painfully funny moment in which she struggles to decide how many glass jars she needs to store the fashionable lentils that she never uses, before dashing out of the store in despair at herself.
It becomes clear that it may be Veronica, rather than Liam, who was sexually abused by Nugent and that her storytelling is a process of transference. Her attitude towards sex is desperately disturbed, and she finds it almost impossible to seperate healthy love-making from sordid fiddling. Watching her husband having an erotic dream, she imagines him abusing their own daughter:
'I turn around again and gather the covers about me, as the thing my husband is fucking in his sleep slowly recedes. A thing that might be me. Or it might not be me. It might be Marilyn Monroe - dead or alive. It might be a slippery, plastic kind of girl, or a woman he knows from work, or it might be a child - his own daughter, why not? There are men who would do anything, asleep, and I am not sure what stops them when they wake. I do not know how they draw a line.'
The fact that she can conceive of his fantasising about the rape of his own child says a great deal more about her own ruined psyche than his. The idea of child abuse has become central to her being, a kind of retreat from her marital dissatisfaction and her distant relationship with her mother (who spends a good portion of the book forgetting her daughter's name). It is as though the abuse gives her an identity, and also the reason to take it away:
'I add it in to my life, as an event, and I think, well yes, that might explain some things. I add it into my brother's life and it is crucial; it is a place where all cause meets all effect, the crux of the X.
Which is pretty much where the plot begins and ends; it is hardly ripe with revelation. What it has instead is a canny prose, an exquisite way of inhabiting Veronica and all her neuroses, and turning them out like pockets. Enright pitches the roar of her narrative so that it is full of something far more shocking than paedophilia: the momentous, cloying difficulty of thwarted sexuality. It is the twin of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach in this regard although, I think, superior in that it gives the woman a voice to express her own difficulties and to make her own apologies. Enright is funnier too, and more acidic than McEwan. Veronica is delightfully waspish, for example, when confronting the economic facts of her life: 'But I don't think empires or cities or even five-bedroom detached houses are built on the sordid fact that people have sex, I think they are built on the sordid fact that people have mortgages.' In the end it is this - the way that Enright has Veronica constantly touch base with reality - that gives the novel its real gritty flavour. You know, I wouldn't be at all surprised if it won. The odds at the bookies are currently 15-1, the longest of the lot. I might even put my money where my mouth is.