The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

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the visitorAnastasia 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This novella is an early unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered after her death in a University archive.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.

Maeve Brennan
Maeve Brennan

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!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 6
Book 6

51 thoughts on “The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

  1. Sounds like a very powerful book! I love the notion of selfishness – it really is a two-headed coin and I really enjoy books where the reader’s opinion of a character is meant to be fluid – much as we view people in real life. Perhaps this book came from a very personal experience and Brennan felt she couldn’t publish it for that reason? I have to admit, FF, I am intrigued 🙂

    • That’s an intriguing thought – perhaps it was too close to home, right enough! I got the impression she could be quite a difficult person in real life so it’s possible. I loved that she made the selfishness go in all directions – usually when a selfish character is involved, everyone else is shown as victims, but in reality most of us have at least a streak of selfishness. (Get your hand away from my cake!)

  2. Sounds like quite a powerful character study, Fiction! And I always respect it when the author shows characters as multi-leveled like that. It also sounds a little eerie, too, in that psychological-novel sort of way. Hmmmm…..you’ve piqued my interest…

    • Yes, there was definitely a creepy factor in there, though nothing supernatural. It reminded me in a strange way of things like The Turn of the Screw, where the tension is built on pretty nebulous stuff but is none the less effective for that. Definitely characters I won’t forget in a hurry…

    • Thank you! 🙂 I’ve never come across her before either, and checking her out after I’d written the review it appears she was strictly a short story writer – no novels. And though she was Irish she worked mainly in the US, with the result that a lot of her stuff wasn’t published here in the UK till relatively recently. Fortunately at least one of her collections is available now though…

  3. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds interesting. Today’s books rarely involve the deep characterization that books long ago did. Probably another sign of our times, that we’re comfortable with a more cursory glimpse into who others are??!

    • Yes, I think a lot of books tend to go much more for action now. But this kind of small intense thing, where the only action is how people behave towards each other in small ways, can be at least as effective as the big blockbuster stuff. It reminded me a bit of Daphne du Maurier or someone like that.

  4. Wonderful. How lucky to have won Cathy’s contest! I enjoyed her review of another Maeve Brennan work. I had not heard of her before that. I’ll get around to trying her… one day! 🙂

    • Indeed, indeed! 😀 It was a great prize too – this one and a book of short stories from Irish women writers, which I’m really looking forward to. Cathy has expanded my Irish reading hugely and I gotta admit, for such a small nation, they do have some brilliant writers.

  5. I love that fierce author photo. And aren’t novellas just fantastic? You’d think they’d do better in the publishing world, but they don’t. Short story collections also fail to do as well as the key money-maker: the trilogy. However, Novellas are so tightly written that they tend to have more impact on me than many other books. Granted, you have to watch out for short story writers who’ve allowed their short story to get bloated and BECOME a novella.

    • Isn’t it a great photo? Don’t you wish you were on the other side of the table, arguing with her about whatever it is she looks so intense about? I think I want to be her, suddenly. I’ve realised recently that I love novellas – I think I always have but just haven’t thought about it consciously. I love that they’re just the right length to read in one comfortable session – it means they become a much tenser read than a longer book that you have to keep stopping and starting. I think they might be growing in popularity too – I’ve noticed a couple of favourite crime writers producing novella length stories between novels – perhaps e-book pricing makes it more attractive.

      • James Patterson just recently argued for the novella instead of long 400+ page novels. They will only cost $5 and appeal to people whose time is always pulled in many directions due to interests in TV, video games, etc. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/business/media/james-patterson-has-a-big-plan-for-small-books.html?_r=0

        I haven’t read a ton of novellas because people really aren’t publishing them, but some presses are trying to do imprints for just novellas, which is smart. My favorite way to get novellas is to have an author write TWO of them and publish them in the same book. Debra DiBlasi’s book Drought & Say What You Like is my favorite, with Jen Michalski’s Could You Be With Her Now.

        • Some crime presses are producing translated novellas from Europe at the moment – it seems to be a much more normal thing over there than either here or in the US I think. I’ll look into the ones you mention – thanks!

          With regards to length, for me a novella should take between two and three hours to read (how subjective is that!) which means abiut 100-150 pages, paperback size. My ideal would be 120 pages – long enough for some development but still easily consumed in about the time it would take to watch a movie. 200 pages seems too long – that used to be considered a novel. Gatsby isn’t much longer than that! Maybe it’s because novels have become so bloated that people are calling shorter novels novellas now…

          • When I see a novel that is over 300 pages, I immediately don’t want to read it. Why are they so fat now? And films are just the opposite; for the last decade, many films for adults are right around 90 minutes (though, strangely, kids films seem to be getting closer to that 120 minute mark).

            • I don’t mind so much with what I think of as literary fiction, so long as the length is matched by the content. But it drives me insane with crime novels – they used to be seen as light entertainment to while away a few hours – now every second crime writer seems to feel they have to pad it out with lots of trauma and waffling. Half the time I’ve forgotten what the crime was by the time I get to the solution!

      • Okay, I just did some internet searches for excellent must-read novellas, and I immediately discovered that the definition of “novella” is too slippery to really find what I’m looking for. Pretty much anything under 200 pages is being called a novella, whereas I would say 100 pages max. What do you think?

  6. Once again your keen examination of this work made for a rivieting review, FF. Nothing escapes you! And I am tempted to add this . . . You are like chocolate to my TBR! Curses! 😉

  7. Wow, this sounds taut, insightful and well balanced with the addition of such a contrasting character, that terrible inability to overcome a grudge and that possessive love of mother-son which becomes so easily hatred towards anyone who dares to share it. Fascinating, I’ve not heard of this author, what a find.

    • I’m at a loss to know why it wasn’t published in her lifetime – it feels entirely finished and the editor makes it clear that he only had to make minimal changes to it. I get the impression she wrote exclusively short stories – no novels – plus a lot of non-fiction writing in the form of newspaper columns. I’ll definitely be trying to track down more of her stuff.

  8. What a fantastic win FF – this book sounds like a great find, I do sometimes enjoy a book that lets you investigate a character or in this case characters without masses of action – it sounds incredibly powerful.

    • I know – lucky me! I loved how she built up so much tension in such a short space and managed to cram in so much characterisation. And the end took me totally by surpise…

  9. Delighted to hear you enjoyed this book so much. I have a collection of Brennan’s stories on my shelves which came highly recommended by a trusted friend. Must try to get to it fairly soon!

    • I shall have to get hold of her short stories. I love when a writer can make something feel so full and complete in such a short space – takes real skill. If you find you enjoy the short stories, then this would be a great addition. 🙂

  10. Sounds good. I love it when an author knows what she wants to say, says it and then STOPS. So much more satisfactory than a lot of unnecessary padding.

  11. This little book has been on my pile for a while now. You’ve reminded me it’s there and that I really do need to pick it up very soon!

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