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Anastasia King left her father’s home when she was 16 to live with her mother in Paris. Now, when she is 22, both her parents are dead and she has returned to Dublin expecting to live in her old home with her paternal grandmother. But old Mrs King is quite content to live alone with her memories of her beloved son and has never forgiven her daughter-in-law for bringing shame on the family by leaving him. And she’s no more willing to forgive Anastasia for choosing her mother over her father.
This novella is an early unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered after her death in a University archive. The editor tells us that he has done some minor tidying up of the text, but that it is substantially as she wrote it. This begs the question why she never sought to, or perhaps failed to, have it published in her lifetime. It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.
She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.
The writing is excellent – the story mournful and entirely absorbing. There’s a claustrophobic feel to it, with these two brilliantly created characters inhabiting the same space but never sharing it. Mrs King is cold and selfish even in her love for her son, perhaps having been the cause of the flight of his wife. She sees Anastasia as her mother’s daughter and shows no grandmotherly love for her, and no sympathy for her recent bereavement.
Where it would have been easy, and perhaps facile, for Brennan to show Anastasia solely as a victim of Mrs King’s cruelty, in fact she does something much more subtle and effective. As the story unfolds, we begin to see that this coldness and emotional detachment may be a family trait, that perhaps the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. While Mrs King makes no effort to ease Anastasia’s return to Dublin, Anastasia equally shows no concern over how her return may disrupt the settled patterns of this elderly lady’s life. Each selfish action is reflected back from the opposite angle, often reversing the reader’s initial perceptions. When Mrs King refuses to allow Anastasia to have her mother’s body brought home and buried with her father, is it Mrs King who is being selfish in refusing a reasonable request, or is it Anastasia failing to understand the shame her mother brought on her father when she ran away? Why, anyway, would Anastasia assume her mother would want to be buried with the man she left? Both characters see the world through narrow viewpoints, their own wishes always at the forefront.
As the story continues, both characters commit some acts that are chilling in their level of selfishness, made more so by the quiet, almost matter-of-fact way in which Brennan relates them. There is a third character, Miss Kilbride, an old friend of Mrs King’s, who serves as a contrast and catalyst. Having been dominated by her invalid mother, another selfish monster, Miss Kilbride still lives in her mother’s house, psychologically unable to think of it as her own and leaving everything as it was while her mother was alive. Unlike the two main characters, Miss Kilbride knows what it means to love someone unselfishly, making her the most sympathetic and likeable character in the book, whose story injects some much needed emotional warmth. The request she makes of Anastasia provides the climax of the story – a disturbing, shocking climax that forces the reader to reassess all that has gone before.
She walked out along the shallow path. At the gate she turned to look up at Miss Kilbride’s window. It was blind and closed, like a person sleeping. Like Miss Kilbride, lying on her back in difficult slumber. And later, waking to dream of a doubtful deathly union with her long-lost hero, with whom she had once struggled in valiant, well-dressed immodesty on a small settee, for love’s sake.
I was quite blown away by this novella. The amount of insight and depth of characterisation that Brennan packs into such a small space is amazing, and I became so engrossed in it that I read it in one sitting. Along the way, it made me gasp more than once, and I admit to a little sob too at one point. All three of these women became real to me in a way that many characters in much longer books have failed to do, and I doubt I’ll forget their story. I shall promptly be seeking out more of Brennan’s work – if she thought this one wasn’t good enough for publication, then I can’t wait to read the stuff she thought was good. Highly recommended!
I won this in Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland 2016 giveaway. Thank you again, Cathy – great stuff!