The front copy of the novel compares this novel to James Joyce’s Dubliners. High praise… and sort of stock compliments for Irish writers post-dating ole Jamesy. But, as I read through the first half of the book, I kept finding myself agreeing: “Yep,” I would say (inside my head, obviously, I’m not going to sit there, quietly reading a book, interrupting the quiet with an occasional outburst of commentary), “the way she writes description definitely evokes Joyce, especially his short stories like ‘A Painful Case’. The unreliable narrator recalls details which make the scenes spring out in your mind, fully-formed.” (Perhaps you can see why I’m not saying this stuff out loud… what an a—hole I’d sound like, eh?)
I like the unreliable narrator in this case. Her holey (and holy) memories begin to mount during the course of her trip to fetch her brother Liam’s body from England, where he committed suicide by walking into the sea. But as they mount, you get the sense that there is a vast gaping hole in the middle, over which she’d shoveled more memories, and some of them have to do with the event that she may or may not have witnessed in her grandmother’s front room tens of years before which may or may not have led Liam to his eventual destination. And I was fully satisfied that maybe this was the way it was going to end; the death of a brother with whom the narrator had been close and now was no longer (even before his death) leaving holes in the narrator’s sense of her history and now future, as she struggles to make sense of her own life in relation to her brother’s.
But at the funeral, the gathering of the title, well, that hole is filled in like the soul she begins making sense of somewhere in the middle… and well, then the novel revealed its own soul. And sang.
I could understand someone not making it as far as that, if they got bogged down by the description and fluttering about of the histories of her grandmother, grandfather, Lamb Nugent, mother, father, and siblings. Someone who got fed up with the itch that the holes in the histories were making. But I’d also say that sticking it through to the end is well, well worth it.