- Anne Enright’s The Gathering: Trauma, Testimony, Memory
The emotionally charged contemporary terrain of The Gathering (2007) marks a return to the somber fiction that Anne Enright appeared to leave behind in the cool ironies and historiographic pretensions of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002), set in nineteenth-century Latin America. Yet, the writerly finesse of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is replicated in The Gathering, and, more to the point, The Gathering—like its predecessor—prompts questions about national identity and the effect of its construction. The earlier novel achieves this by contrasting a nineteenth-century ruling couple’s venality and their leadership’s grand pretensions; in The Gathering, the probing of national identity occurs through an invocation of the child abuse that has been shown to have been commonplace in post-Independence Ireland, and which, in conjunction with discoveries of other histories of neglect, fractured the country’s self-understanding on the cusp of and during the recent economic boom.1 In The Gathering, as in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, Enright contests gendered hierarchies of knowledge by troubling history’s claims to authenticity and by foregrounding bodily and emotional truth and experience.
A mixture of family history, crisis diary, and fantasy, The Gathering is a testimonial written by protagonist Veronica Hegarty following the suicide of her brother. She is driven to “bear witness” to a childhood molestation.2 She believes the event was a key event contributing to his despair and she produces, as she [End Page 59] moves along, a searing document of deep feeling and an uncertain locating of blame that attests more to her own trauma than to her brother’s.
Enright’s embedding of traumatic personal and national histories in the testimonial mode constitutes the basis of the novel’s exploration of history’s forms, nature, and uses. Testimony, an eyewitness account of happenings in the past, is customarily solicited in a trial when “the facts upon which justice must pronounce its verdict are not clear, when historical accuracy is in doubt, and when both the truth and its supporting elements of evidence are called into question.”3 Testimony functions as a mitigating factor within a “crisis of truth,” with the closeness between event and witness seeming to guarantee testimony’s truth, its objective purity.4 However, testimonies involving traumatic events are often fraught with distortions and riddled with gaps—a fact that Enright emphasizes through the character of Veronica, a deeply suspect witness and narrator. But, of course, in presenting a fictional rendition of an historical genre, Enright is already announcing her intention of troubling the link between objectivity and truth.
Veronica’s self-presentation as a witness, which forms the book’s opening statement, performs this undermining of objective purity. On one hand, Veronica asserts her burning need to tell of what she saw, but she couches her urgency in a declaration of her memory’s fallibility:
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house when I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me—this thing that may not have taken place.(G 1)
As it happens, Veronica does not divulge the nature of this “event” until her narrative is well underway, and when she does, she states once more that it “may be a false memory” (G 144). She qualifies her statement yet again soon thereafter, saying that it is not the molestation itself but her memory of where and how precisely it took place that is in doubt. Enright engages in a teasing process in this novel, providing a simultaneous assertion and undermining of certainty, a practice shown by the revelation of this originary event—the dire happening and her witnessing of it—until late in the text, but then suggesting that she might have the facts wrong. The logic, center, and hence, the truth of Veronica’s story—in which we as emotionally involved readers have a stake—all depend upon a molestation having taken place, but Veronica tests our belief.
The novel’s ambiguity is a consequence...