Friday, 29 January 2010

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

This novella has been called a "jewelled miniature" and it is certainly full of iridescent sentences, portraying a world of insularity like a piece of amber with the characters trapped inside.

The story is the return of Anastasia King from Paris (where she has been living with her, now dead, mother), to her grandmother's house in Dublin.

"All the houses in the square were tall, with heavy stone steps going up to the front doors. They were occupied by old people, who had grown old in their houses and their accustomed ways. They disregarded the inconveniences of the square houses, their dark basements and draughty landings, and lived on, going tremulously from one wrinkled day to the next, with an occasional walk between the high stone walls of their gardens".

There is no enthusiastic welcome as she enters in the house in fact it is implied that this is only to be a temporary visit, which is not what Anastasia wants to hear.

"Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and time gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness".

The domineering grandmother that wants to be left alone with the grief for her dead son, and Anastasia the granddaughter who wants to be loved. At first the reader's sympathies are with this lost young girl surrounded by elderly women but as the story moves on irritation starts to build and I felt like shouting, get a grip and stop moping around, but self absorption prevents Anastasia from doing this.

Brennan's characters unfold as the novella advances and a sense of unease builds through the pages. With the introduction of Miss Kilbride, a friend of Anastasia's mother, it seems as though this might be the answer to Anastasia's isolation, but this leads to a shocking incident that shows another aspect of her character.

Verdict - A short book that packs a punch and I could read time and again just for the beautiful prose.

Maeve Brennan died in obscurity in 1993 but her posthumously published books have attracted many admirers. Born in Ireland (1917) she emigrated, with her parents to America in 1934 and went on to write a column and short stories for the New Yorker, but the latter part of her life disintegrated into mental instability.

The Irish author Roddy Doyle was distantly related to Maeve and met her, but at the time much to his regret, he did not know she was a writer and describes her as "small and exotic". When asked if she would be considered an American or Irish writer hes says that with the discovery of her writing in the latter part of the century she was perceived as a new Irish writer who had been discovered 8 years after she died.

In the following audio he briefly discusses her with Deborah Freisman of the New Yoker, and then reads a short story called 'Christmas Eve' which is written in a much simpler style than 'The Visitor' but in its domesticity tells a powerful story. Doyle thinks, that although "he might be biased", her Dublin set stories are her best.


Aimee said...

This sounds quite chilling and for some reason the cover reminds me of 'Affinity' by Sarah Waters. "Characters trapped in amber..." I like.


Joy said...

Yes it is subtley chilling. I have not read any Sarah Waters although I keep meaning to as she seems to get rave reviews. The Little Stranger sounded an interesting one to start with but maybe now I should try Affinity.