The Visitor, a novella, was written sometime in the 1940’s but just published in 2000, after being discovered in papers acquired by Notre Dame University. I learned about Maeve Brennan only last year, from a review of The Rose Garden on Cathy’s blog 746 Books. Brennan was the daughter of an Easter Rising rebellion leader, and moved as a teen with her family to the U.S. in 1934, when her father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the United States. Apparently she became part of the New York City literati and was rumored to be inspiration for Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly. She worked for The New Yorker, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town” and her own short stories. After a brief marriage to the editor of the magazine, St. Clare McKelway, she drifted into mental problems and homelessness, dying in obscurity in 1993.
The Visitor is a dark, atmospheric volume about a supremely dysfunctional family. Anastasia, a twenty-two year-old young woman, is coming to stay with her grandmother, Mrs. King, after being away for six years. We learn that she was in Paris with her mother, a woman with whom her grandmother did not get along, and that her mother has recently died. Her father, who stayed in Dublin, has recently passed away as well. Anastasia is adrift, returning to her childhood home, even though it becomes clear that it was not a place of happiness for her or her family.
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.
Anastasia’s parents marriage was not a happy one. A large age difference and a difference in temperament, possibly mental problems, are alluded to in flashbacks. Her grandmother blames Anastasia for her father’s death, or at the very least harbors resentment towards her for following her mother to Paris and not coming back to Ireland. When Anastasia expresses a desire to remain with her grandmother, she shuts her down resolutely, coldly.
“I’m afraid that you’ve been counting too much on me. You mustn’t do that. I have no home to offer you. This is a changed house here now. I see no one whatsoever.”
She smiled with anger.
“I stopped seeing them after she ran off, when I found them asking questions of Katherine in the hall outside. I go out to mass, that’s all. When I got your telegram, I hadn’t the heart to stop you. You need a change. It’s natural that you should want to pay a visit here. But more than that, no. It might have been different, maybe, if you’d been with me when he died. But you weren’t here.”
This is pretty much what Anastasia confronts as soon as she arrives to the house. She drifts aimlessly through her days, taking walks, shopping for Christmas gifts, and visiting an elderly friend of her grandmother’s, Miss Kilbride, the only person her Mrs. King has over to tea. Miss Kilbride tells her some of her own secrets, and makes an unusual request of Anastasia in the event of her passing on. Will Anastasia honor Miss Kilbride’s request? Will she somehow persuade her grandmother to let her stay, or will she return to Paris? Is Anastasia even a trustworthy narrator?
I was very much impressed by this little gem, I have to say. Not a word is wasted. The writing is assured, elegant, evocative. I was left with questions, but was mesmerized by the steady hand with which Brennan portrayed what was left of this supremely dysfunctional family. I felt sorry for everyone in it, from Katherine, the determinedly kind housekeeper, to the thwarted Miss Kilbride, who had disappointments of her own she never recovered from. I even felt sympathy for Mrs. King, who lived a sad and circumscribed life. It seems such a shame to live a life with so little room for joy, and so little capacity for forgiveness. I somehow hope that Anastasia is able to break the cycle of sadness that her family has bequeathed to her, but we are not privy to that outcome, if it is to pass.
I’m so glad to have learned of Maeve Brennan, and intend to read everything of hers and about her that I can find. What a fascinating life! What a powerful writer! This was a terrific choice for Reading Ireland Month. To read more blog posts about Irish novels, films, and culture, click here.