The Gathering

the hathering

 

“People do not change, they are merely revealed.”
Anne Enright, The Gathering

The Gathering is the fourth novel by Irish writer Anne Enright, and the first book I have read of hers. It has been my intention to read more Irish literature and you couldn’t get more stereotypically Irish than this book. Veronica and Liam – two siblings from a Catholic family of 12 children. As Veronica travels from Dublin to Brighton to claim her brothers body she recalls bits and pieces of her childhood with her favourite brother.

It was difficult to churn through Anne Enright’s clunky narrative or even warm to the protagonist Veronica, but I did enjoy reading the parts on Veronica’s thoughts on her marriage. I wonder how important our role is as a mother, just how much are we actually needed and how much of what we do is down to pure laziness from our children. When Veronica’s brother, Liam dies she knows that everything will go on with out her. A family death giving her an automatic ‘hall pass’ from her life, and for a short while she can flee from the suffocating responsibilities of a wife and mother and take some time to gather her thoughts.

“There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest. And the girls will be picked up from school, and dropped off again in the morning. Your eldest daughter can remember her inhaler, and your youngest will take her gym kit with her, and it is just as you suspected – most of the stuff that you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to love you.”
Anne Enright, The Gathering

The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize and yet I couldn’t wait for the book to end. I am not a reader who normally shy’s away from gritty stoicism in my book choice, so why did I struggle through this book? It may be because the depressing themes pervading the book seemed to have no point and no summarisation at all. The problem is nothing really happens. In the end there is no story. The Gathering is a well written book, but it is a book written for writers rather than readers. Sometimes I think writers forget why they are writing a book, they write to be read after all and a reader wants a good story; to be entertained, thrilled and maybe even appalled a little, but they want a good story and The Gathering just doesn’t deliver.

That is why a book like The Gathering can have such disparate reviews, on one end of the scale are readers who simply enjoy a good story, the way it is written can easily be forgotten if it is a memorable and enjoyable read and on the other end are the high brow readers who pick a book apart for its structure and prose and the idea of an enjoyable plot line becomes lost and largely unimportant in their pursuit for that elusive of all things, ‘the perfect sentence’.

 

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And the Mountains Echoed in Greece

“All my life I have lived like an Aquarium fish in the safety of a glass tank, behind a barrier as impenetrable as it has been transparent. I have been free to observe the glimmering world on the other side, to picture myself in it, if I like. But I have always been contained, hemmed in, by the hard, unyielding confines of the existence that Baba has constructed for me, at first knowingly, when I was young, and now guilelessly, now that he is fading day by day. I think I have grown accustomed to the glass and am terrified that when it breaks, when I am alone, I will spill out into the wide open unknown and flop around, helpless, lost, gasping for breath.”

Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed

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Each of us are weighed down, burdened by our own particular set of responsibilities, a brand unique to ourselves, our situations and our lives. My own responsibilities I have worn as a heavy chain around my neck for too long. This is not to state that I choose to be free of my responsibilities, a choice that is too reckless, too heartless and remote a decision I could ever make. But I do have a choice to live with my burdens. A choice that is not to accept a weight that encumbers our lives, but a choice to accommodate that weight, shift it a little on your back so that the weight is less cumbersome.

This is a new skill I feel I will have to practice to get right, and yet a skill that is essential to not just survive in life, but to be happy. I must learn to enjoy the days when the weight of responsibility grounds me, but make sure I have the days when I am free to move, to explore. If I am careful to plan for those days, it is easier to enjoy the days I am forced to be still.

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In Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, the stories move the reader constantly along Afghanistan, France and Greece, through sixty years of relationships, often so close that their lives are a burden to each other, others remote, but all touching and shaping their lives in amazing ways. This is life; inescapable and alluring.

Towards the end of the book is a touching story of the little girl Thalia, who was mauled by a dog at 5 just years old. Her story is set in an island in Greece, and I read this part of the book while staying at Aegina, another island in Greece, thinking about the people who have touched my life, wondering if those people who seemed so remote at the time may have had the biggest influence.

The Fifth Wave Inside of Us

“Sometimes you tell yourself that you have a choice, but really you don’t have a choice! Just because there are alternatives doesn’t mean they apply to you.”

Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

The experiences of the last few years have felt like a weight on my mind, constant pressure bearing down on the top of my head. When my life changed it felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders, my mind felt free and open again. The negative experiences no longer whirled around my mind. But the experiences I had over the last few years are still there. I have tried to forget and move on, but have come to realise that some experiences are a part of you and will become a burden that you must carry for the rest of your life. Some wounds will leave a scar for the rest of your life. Do not hide that ugly scar it is a part of you, it is a witness to your survival. Maybe life is not about forgetting these experiences but learning to carry the extra weight with strength and resilience.

“Some things you can never leave behind. They don’t belong to the past. They belong to you.”
Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

The Reluctant Person!

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a dark, thought-provoking and intelligent novel, it has been a long time since I had a dictionary by my side when I read a book. But semantics aside Mohsin Hamid’s second book is bold in its premise of September 11th from the stance of the outsider, not of the terrorists, but of the Middle Eastern community that lived in New York at the time of the attacks.

A privileged upbringing in Lahore, Pakistan and Princeton University have afforded Changez a sense of entitlement and belonging. The attacks in New York on September 11th make him feel like an outsider and he becomes increasingly made more aware of his Pakistani origin and his patriotic and family responsibilities.

“Time only moves in one direction, remember that, things always change”

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I have always been an outsider. I must be the only mother who waits for her daughter at the school gates immersed in a book rather than chatting about the daily soaps. This is an actuality that no longer concerns me. As a writer I live in a world of my own creation, a world that is constantly fluctuating. I can be anything of my choosing, and I would not choose a normal life. This will always make me an outsider. But the part of my life I do not dream has become monotonous for a while, but time only moves in one direction, and things always change.

What 5 People Shaped Your Life?

OK, don’t go straight to the obvious here, yes we all know that our Mum’s and Dad’s had a powerful influence, positive and negative, on all of us as we grew up. But, step back a moment and take a long look at your life; at the choices you have made in your career, the paths you have taken with your friends and the people who have loved you. Don’t just look at the people who have been a positive influence in your life, I want you to have a good look at the people who may have created an element of negativity that had repercussions throughout your life. No matter how painful, these people can have a profound influence in your life; on the decisions you make and the outcome of those decisions.

“Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from the inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade.”

Mitch Albom, The 5 People You Meet in Heaven

In Mitch Albom’s enlightening and wonderful book, The 5 People You Meet in Heaven, an elderly amusement park maintenance worker called Eddie dies at the very beginning of the story while trying to save a young girl on one of the rides. Eddie meets five people in heaven that have shaped his life, and in turn learns from each of them what he was supposed to have learnt through his time on earth, and ultimately the meaning of his life. At the end of the book he waits in his place in heaven to welcome the person he has had a profound influence on in their lives, and instinctively he understands the lesson he must impart on them in turn.

Over the past few years I have learnt a few painful lessons. These lessons can be summarised as thus; As soon as you have lost your temper you have lost the argument! I had felt for years that I had no right to feel the things I felt, because those closest to me were no longer listening. But over time I have come to realise that you have a right to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. But instead of holding on to anger try this; take the lesson you have gained from the person that hurt you and move on. If you have really gained the knowledge of that lesson there will be no room for anger in your life and they will no longer have such a negative influence on your future.

Afterall, the only true revenge in life is success! Be successful in everything you do, then maybe the five people you meet in heaven will be five amazing people who were a positive light in shaping that success, and hopefully you can also be someone else’s positive light in their heaven.

A Thousand Splendid Suns Under One Sky?

Good writers like Khaled Hosseini always explain the motivations of the antagonists in the story. No one is purely evil or purely good and the antagonists actions are always postulated with a bit of back history. Rasheed the main antagonist in A Thousand Splendid Suns, is violent and cruel but we come to understand his actions through the death of his son and the frustration of being unable to father another son as he grows old.

“Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye.
Through the bazaar, caravans of Egypt pass.
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
and the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls”

The title of Khaled Hosseini’s book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, comes from a line in the Josephine Davis translation of the poem ‘Kabul’ by the 17th century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi.

The startling brutality and oppression of the Taliban Afghanistan, especially against women, can be regarded as another antagonist of the book, which can also be said of Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner. But Hosseini has the ability to portray this time in Afghanistan history with a depth of understanding and warmth for his home country and it’s people.

As a strong independent woman the concept of life hidden under a Burqa in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime seems completely unreal and intolerable. This is also true for the two protagonist’s of Hosseni’s novel, Mariam and Laila, two strong women who live in a society of few choices but through each other find strength and courage to change their lives. Under the Taliban regime they are not allowed to work and are forced to stay with a violent husband (Rasheed). When Rasheed loses his job Laila has no choice but to put her young daughter into an orphange, a common act for widows who are not allowed to work even when their children are starving! Laila is beaten daily as she has the audacity to walk outside without a man as she attempts, often in vain, to visit her daughter at the orphanage. After a lifetime of decisions taken away from her, Mariam chooses to sacrifice her life for her friend Laila and her children.

I will never forget sitting outside a cafe in Egypt next door to an open slaughter-house. I was travelling with a few of the guys I had been working with on the dive boat, The Sun Boat, taking tourists on diving holidays along the Red Sea. I looked up and noticed a young woman staring at me under a loose black gown, called a niqab, that only showed her eyes. It suddenly dawned on me how few women I had actually seen on my short travels so far in Egypt. What I remember most is the way she looked at me. Her eyes held no malice just a sense of awe and incomprehension as she looked at me. What must I have looked like to her; a Western woman uncovered, free to make my own choices in life, a life she understood that would always be out of her reach.

As I sat alone at the back of the Sun Boat watching the sun set on the Red Sea as it sailed away from the port of Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, I had learnt that the world is more open than we think it is, and that sometimes the only bars around us are the ones we create for ourselves.