1. At the very beginning of the novel, the narrator, Veronica, states that she is setting out to “bear witness to an uncertain event” from her childhood. Begin your discussion of this novel by considering the nature of truth, and the ways in which it is possible or impossible to reach the truth in remembering stories from our childhood. Do you think it is more important for Veronica to arrive at the truth or to uncover the stories and memories that might hold clues to her childhood? How far do you think she succeeds in reaching an approximate truth? Consider her statement “I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth” (p. 2)—and discuss its implications.
2. In many ways she is disturbing the ghosts of the past as she sifts through her stories and “night thoughts” (p. 2). Look at the ways in which these ghosts manifest themselves physically throughout the novel. How does the ghost or presence of her brother, Liam, make itself felt, if at all?
3. The novel eloquently explores the landscape of grief and the ways in which a death inevitably brings up memories and questions about the past. Talk about Veronica’s immediate responses to Liam’s death, and compare and contrast her mother’s reactions. Discuss the responses of the various other siblings. Why is Veronica irritated by her mother’s grief, and the fact that she has to go through the notions of comforting her? What does she mean when she says “Who am I to touch, to handle, and discard, the stuff of a mother’s love?” (p. 11).
4. The mother is an overwhelming presence at the center of the novel, not by the force of her own character but more so by Veronica’s bitterness towards her. Analyze the mother’s place in the novel, and talk about the level of Veronica’s anger toward her. What will she not forgive her mother and why? Discuss the possible reasons for her statement “the imponderable pain of my mother against which I have hardened my heart” (p. 185). Does her opinion of her mother shift at all during the novel? Does she ever feel a moment of love for her?
5. In light of the last question, consider the central role of forgiveness and guilt in the novel and the hold it has over the characters. Analyze especially Veronica’s relationship with her brother Liam, and her belief in forgiving the dead. Why do you think Liam made her feel guilty about her life with her husband and her daughters? Talk about the effect of Liam’s death on her relationship with her husband, and with the life she has created for herself.
6. Compare Veronica’s upbringing with that of her own two daughters, and her parenting style with that of her mother. Reflect upon the emptiness she feels in her life, the sadness it causes her, and how it will impact her daughters. Are there instances in her own life that reflect her mother’s? Consider the implications of Veronica’s worries about her children’s well-being and talk about whether over-parenting serves them better than the lack of parenting she received from her mother.
7. Consider the strength that Veronica exhibits during the period after Liam’s death. At one point, she says, “I am all for sadness . . . but we fill up with it . . . until donk, we tilt into the drink” (p 175). Indeed, at points she seems to be plunging down Liam’s path of drinking and despair, and yet she keeps herself from making the plunge. Analyze the ways in which Liam has given into this despair, and the ways in which Veronica rails against it. What are some of the sources from which she derives her strength? Why was Liam unable to draw upon the same reserves in his battle with depression? Do Veronica’s humor and irreverence have a place in the midst of such grief?
8. “I am the one who loved him most.” Veronica repeats this line as she undertakes the practical duties of death (arranging for bringing Liam’s body home). It seems that she considers her close relationship with Liam as a burden. Are there other characters in the novel for whom love is a burden? Talk about Uncle Val’s comment at Liam’s wake, “Ah well. We did our best” (p. 203). What realization does it bring to Veronica? Discuss the responsibilities of filial and sibling love.
9. “There was great privacy in a big family . . . no one ever pitied you or loved you a little” (p. 164). Analyze this interesting statement, and talk about how the Hegarty family’s character and, perhaps, destinies were shaped by the sheer number of children in the family. On occasion, Veronica refers to the Hegartys as a group, a particular type who share certain characteristics—what are some of their traits? She also considers them all as damaged (p. 222)—how far do you agree with her view?
10. Liam’s death serves as a catalyst for Veronica as she launches herself in pursuit of childhood memories, searching for the moment that set Liam off course in his life and steered him toward an early death. She states “What is written for the future is written in the body” (p. 163). What does she mean by this statement and how much do you agree? Could she have done anything to avert his suicide? To what extent do you think she has lived with guilt about Liam’s abuse since her childhood, or do you believe the memories have only resurfaced after his death?
11. Discuss the reasons why she begins to view her life with her husband and children in a new and unpalatable light? Is her sudden change of heart valid? How far do you sympathize with her? What view do you begin to shape of her husband? What are your feelings toward him?
12. Early on in the novel Veronica states, “There are so few people given us to love.” What do you think she means by this and how is this opinion reflected in the narrative? Certainly, the novel expressively touches upon and considers many different forms of love. Expand upon the ways in which the Hegartys are bound together by love. Look at the marriage of Veronica’s parents and find instances of love there as well as in the marriage of Ada and Charlie. Consider the bonds between the siblings and the way they interact with each other as adults. And what about the “easy, anxious love” a child feels for her grandfather?
13. The character of Ada seems to provide a key to Veronica’s—and Liam’s—past, and she is portrayed with far more detail than any other character. What do we know for sure about Ada? Analyze her relationship with her husband, Charlie, considering the statement “We do not always like the people we love” (p. 110). How much of the relationship between Ada and Lamb Nugent is invented? What do you understand of the relationship between Ada, Charlie, and Lamb? What do you think we are supposed to surmise? At what point does Veronica realize that Lamb was her grandparent’s landlord and how does that change her view of events that took place that summer?
14. In a novel of “shifting stories and waking dreams” (p. 142) Veronica searches for the memory of her brother’s abuse, and tries to pinpoint her grandmother’s role in it. Does she ever come to a true understanding of this? Do her feelings for her grandmother change? What about her mother’s place in all this? Consider the childhood mantra, “Don’t tell mammy,” and talk about how much you think the mother knew.
15. Veronica says “Liam’s fate was written in his bones” (p.163). Do you think she believes that Liam’s fate was set in motion that fateful summer?
16. Veronica seems to be searching for some sort of truth, a conclusion, but states at one point “The only things I am sure of are the things I never saw” (p. 62). Again, on p. 91 she says that there is something “immoral about the mind’s eye.” What truths has her internal journey brought her? How has her journey into the past paralleled her journey to pick up Liam’s body and bring it back to Ireland for burial? To whom does the question “What use is the truth to us now?” (p. 208) apply?
17. The physicality of the body is very much in evidence throughout the narrative. Indeed, a corpse sets the novel in motion, and an act of physical abuse lies at its center. Find examples of the weight of the body throughout the text: consider the death of Ada’s husband, Charlie, of Veronica seeing “the living with all their smells and holes” through Liam’s eyes (p. 76), her statement “I do not believe in my husband’s body anymore” (p. 73). Discuss the place of sex in the novel as another aspect of the physical. Is there a division of body and soul in the novel?
18. Male sexuality in particular is a contentious topic in this book. In some instances, as with Ada and Charlie, it is part of a romantic, nurturing union between two people; in others, it is a thing inflicted on one person by another. Both types of sexuality—the constructive and the destructive—have a lasting effect on future generations. Consider the female views of male sexuality presented in this book, and the ways in which men like Tom are forced to reckon with their “impulses and [their] actions, and the gap between the two” (p. 177). How are these male characters affected when they let their desires govern their behavior?
19. Religion runs seamlessly through the fabric of the narrative as a presence in the lives of the Hegarty children but not as an overwhelming influence. Find instances where religion appears in the narrative and discuss its importance to the characters, and to the novel as a whole. Talk about how The Gathering’s lack of emphasis on religion might fit into the tradition of Irish literature.
20. What do you think Veronica means when she says “Blasphemy seems to be my business here” (p. 59).
21. Consider the role of happiness in the novel. Do you think that any of the characters have found contentment in their life? Why do you think Veronica considered Ada and Charlie to be happy? Given her memories of what happened at their house during her childhood, what does this say about her view of happiness? Discuss the following statement “with the Hegartys a declaration of unhappiness is always a declaration of blame” (p. 210), and talk about what it means with regard to the Hegartys’ notion of happiness and unfairness in life.
22. In many ways Veronica has tried to escape the clutches of her childhood. Pinpoint ways in which she has attempted this, and consider how successful she has been. When she goes on her night drives to old childhood haunts were you surprised to find her still living so geographically close to her past? Do you think she can ever really escape?
23. Veronica states that she feels “pawed, used, loved, and very lonely” (p. 244). What have you learned about her over the course of the narrative that would explain why she feels this way? What does she mean when she wishes that someone will “say, again, that everything will be all right?” (p. 244).
24. Why do you think that everyone, and especially Veronica, is entranced by the child Rowan? What does he seem to represent?
25. At the end of the novel Veronica finds herself falling back into her life, hoping to return to her husband and daughters, and to reenter her own life. What do you think the future holds for her? Do you think she will be able to live in her life again as she wishes? Has she grown during the narrative, and, if so, how? Did you find her empathetic as a character? As a narrator? What do you hope for her future?
Winterton Blue by Trezza Azzopardi; Dubliners by James Joyce; The Lucky One by Rachel Cusk; Charming Billy by Alice McDermott; and The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton