Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gathering

In order to save money and make more room on my crowded bookshelves, I've weaned myself off of buying new books and, instead, begun to scan the shelves at my local library. This requires a good deal of patience, for libraries are behind the curve when it comes to current bestsellers. And when they do get these coveted books, there's usually a waiting list. Sure, some of the newbies make it to the "Grab it fast and read it quickly" section where I often find readers body-blocking entire rows of books so they can get first dibs. I find myself grabbing at titles I've never heard of just in case I might be interested. Usually, I'm not.

Last week I got a brilliant idea: I'd focus on past Booker Prize winners, books that have received Britain's counterpart to the Pulitzer. Penelope Lively won the Booker for Moon Tiger, one of my favorite all-time love stories and examples of one of those wondrous books in which events unfurl as the narrator recalls them, not in chronological order. So, why not get on the bandwagon and check out other British authors whose work has been singled out as the best?

That led me to Anne Enright's The Gathering, winner of the Booker in 2007. The back cover blurb tells of "a moving, evocative portrait of a large Irish family haunted by the past." Well, I'm not Irish, but this is a Booker-prize winner after all. The blurb continues, "The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned at sea." I know about such gatherings only too well. We three surviving Mersky children gathered for the funeral of my brother, Robin, some thirty years ago.

I didn't read the remainder of the jacket blurb. I was sold.

And I wasn't disappointed. Enright's writing is poetic, her observations keen, and the parallels between her relationship with her brother and my relationship with mine are uncanny. Readers discover soon enough that Liam's drowning was intentional. He stuffed his pockets with stones and walked into the sea. My brother chose a different escape route: He stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I finished The Gathering two nights ago. I reached to turn off the reading lamp next to my bed and shivered, fearful that I might have bad dreams about my brother, gone now for thirty years.

Instead I thought about my mother. She was the one who found my brother, his bedroom walls splattered with blood and brain matter. By the time my father arrived home, the cleanup crew had left. While the smell of death was everywhere, there were no visual reminders.

My mother was left raw. I can only imagine the nightmares she suffered for years. Only after she died did a home nurse tell me that my mom talked often about "seeing" my brother again. Perhaps it was her anticipation of such a gathering that buoyed her spirit through the last difficult months of her life and underscored that, when all is said and done, it is, as she told me, love that makes it all worthwhile.

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