I recently read an article in the New Yorker about one of their writers from the fifties. Maeve Brennan wrote a series of articles for their paper called The Long Winded Lady: Notes from the New Yorker which has been compiled into a book. The article compared Brennan to James Joyce in her ability to capture the essence and flavor of her native Ireland in her stories. In fact, the writer of that article quotes several Irish authors who considered Brennan as taking up Joyce's mantle. This piqued my curiosity and as a result, I've bought a few of her books.
The first one I have finished is called The Visitor. The story is told in third person from the view point of the protagonist. The story begins with a young lady on a train. She is heading back home to Ireland. The woman, Anastasia King, has been living with her mother in Paris for the past six years. Now that her mother has died she is returning home to Ireland to live with her grandmother.
When she arrives at her grandmother's house she comes to know that her grandmother doesn't want her there. The story unfolds slowly like a blooming flower on a timed camera. Bit by bit, the reader becomes aware of the facts. Anastasia's mother deserted her father who died broken-hearted. Anastasia, at the age of fourteen, chose to leave with her mother. They both stayed in Paris until her mother's death.
The grandmother cannot forgive her daughter-in-law. She does not want her granddaughter there as a sore reminder of painful circumstances.
But more than that, the grandmother wants simply to live in the past. She's kept her son's room as a perpetual shrine to him.
Through glimpses of conversation both present as well as remembered conversations, we come to understand that the grandmother wielded a lot of influence over her son. She viewed her daughter-in-law as competition and was careful to hold her in contempt. Her son took his cue from his mother and treated his wife contemptuously as well.
Anastasia's mother comes across as delicate and extremely sensitive. Eventually she runs away to escape her mother-in-law's dominion.
Even so, no one is caricatured. The grandmother is a human being with several sides to her rather than simply an ogre. She is not heartless. She cares about her granddaughter and will always provide for her. But she wants her to return to Paris. I can't judge her bitterness. If someone left me without bothering to contact me for six years until they had no other place to go, I would be a little hesitant to welcome them back into the fold as well.
This raises a question, however. Was Anastasia really so self-absorbed? She was very young when she left with her mother. Did her mother hold some kind of sway over her that prevented her from contacting her father or grandmother?
While Anastasia wanders around her hometown, and going to church she sees her mother. She sees her walking near her. She sees her kneeling in the church in a pew in front of her. Is she mentally unstable? Is she seeing a ghost? Because the story is narrated from Anastasia's point of view, we don't know.
Throughout the story, the Irish culture permeates each page. Reading the book, one has entered into Ireland, into an Irish family-at least one from the 1930's. One sees how the Catholic faith is a strong, integral part of the culture. How family relations affect each life.
There is a side story of a family friend whom Anastasia visits. This woman, Miss Kildare, tells Anastasia her story. She spent her entire life caring for her sickly mother. She met a man and fell in love with him but her mother refused to sanction the marriage. So they never married but they did continue to see each other in secret. The man even gave her a ring.
Tragically, the man is killed and the woman, with no one else in her life, cares for her mother until her death. Miss Kildare is now elderly and sick but with no one to care for her. She knows she is about to die. The woman asks Anastasia to place on her finger- after she is lying in her coffin- the ring the man gave her.
The Visitor story is really about human loneliness. Brennan shows four different women and their loneliness: Anastasia, her grandmother, the family friend and, indirectly through Anastasia's reflections, her mother. Each has different reasons for being lonely but the result is the same. At the same time each woman possesses a spirit that refuses to be defeated. It turns what might otherwise be a dreary story into a sweet, melancholy one.
I agree that Brennan is able to capture the Irish spirit through her writing. Even though she died unknown, her work is making a comeback. I look forward to reading other books by her as well.