Brennan writes this kind of emotional turmoil with lightness and depth, evoking the wrenching fear and panic that true loneliness induces. Neither excusing nor explaining Anastasia’s heightened sense of self-preservation, Brennan’s is a powerful and compassionate voice, one that haunts and inspires long after the last page of this short work has been turned.
Reviewed by Nora Mahony
by Maeve Brennan
Paperback: 96 pages, November 13, 2001
You would be mistaken for thinking that Maeve Brennan was an up-and-coming Irish talent. Many will have missed her writing, and it stands to their credit that first-rate Dublin publishing house, New Island, has championed the late Brennan’s early novella in a slimline and attractive paperback.
Identified most not with her native Dublin, but with the New York literati set made up of Dorothy Parker and the like, Brennan’s work has been largely neglected until the renaissance spurred on by Angela Bourke’s recent biography. Born in 1916 in Dublin into a war in which her father fought, Maeve Brennan would move with her family to Washington DC when her father became the first Ambassador to the US. In an unusual move for the time, Brennan remained in the US after her family’s return, and was later headhunted by the New Yorker magazine, where she began to climb her way up the ladder to a fruitful career. (Unfortunately, as yours truly can attest, young, misplaced Dubliners are no longer being nabbed from Washington to join the New Yorker staff.)
As Irish author Clare Boylan points out in her brief but excellent introduction, loneliness is a recurring theme in Brennan’s work as it was in her life. Nowhere is this loneliness, this rootless feeling better felt than in The Visitor. The only child of a cosseted mama’s boy and a romantic, passionate if self-involved woman, Anastasia King returns to Dublin after her mother’s death in Paris leaves her an orphan. She has nowhere to call home other than her paternal grandmother’s grand house in the still-grand suburb of Ranelagh, and so without second thought, this worldly-wise if morose teenager arrives on the front step. There she is confronted, not with grandmotherly love from her only surviving relation, but with a cold welcome and the foreboding questing of how long she had intended to visit. Family politics come between the bewildered and grieving child and her resolute grandmother, the latter one of the finest characters in fiction. Monstrous, cruel, cold and vindictive, Mrs King is the antidote to all green-tinted preconceived notions of the Irish welcomes as she needlessly rules her ghostly maid, empty house and (to use a local expression) gobsmacked granddaughter with an iron fist.
Anastasia herself is not an innocent, not blameless, and certainly not the soul of kindness when it comes to people less fortunate than she. In fact, it is with unease that the reader settles in on her side, unsure as to what she may do in her distress. Brennan writes this kind of emotional turmoil with lightness and depth, evoking the wrenching fear and panic that true loneliness induces. Neither excusing nor explaining Anastasia’s heightened sense of self-preservation, Brennan’s is a powerful and compassionate voice, one that haunts and inspires long after the last page of this short work has been turned.
The short answer to all of bewildered Anastasia’s questions, simply that you cannot go home again. The longer answer is that it is more a question of reconsidering what ‘home’ is. Brennan never had the opportunity to return to Ireland from her self-induced exile, and likely would not have been welcomed at the time, what with her experience as a professional woman in liberal and cosmopolitan New York. It was therefore with gratitude and a sense of peace that I finished reading The Visitor just as my plane touched down at Dublin airport. I am happy to report that there was no Mrs. King in evidence on my front step.
About the reviewer: Nora Mahony is a misplaced Dubliner of Washingtonian origin. She is currently working in publishing in London, where she is a member of the Society of Young Publishers. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin in Italian and French, she is a frequent contributor to the Irish Times and The Times Literary Supplement, and is seeking to expand her reviewing repertoire. Nora has also written copy for a range of art and design books over the past year, something that she is ill qualified to do but enjoyed nonetheless. Visit her website at:www.thesyp.org.uk