If your novella The Visitor (2000, originally written in the 1940’s) had a face, it would be one of a trapped animal, diverted from its burrow, silently showing its teeth to its predator. A strange and moveable mask that would convey a mixture of fear, loneliness, and ferocious anger.
The story opens with the 22-year-old Anastasia King in a train, heading back to Ireland after the death of her mother, with whom she had been living in Paris for the past six years. Having no place to call home, Anastasia decides to go back to her paternal grandmother’s house in Dublin, where she was raised. As the story progresses, the pieces of her family life are slowly put together, rearranged, and scattered once again.
Anastasia’s is not as much a journey home as it is a journey to the past – an irretrievable endeavour. Her mother, Mary, was a runaway: she had fled a suffocating marriage to a much older man, Anastasia’s father, who died of heartbreak soon afterwards. We are made to look at Mary’s flight from two different perspectives: from Anastasia’s point of view, her mother was a extremely sensitive woman who had to escape her domineering mother-in-law; on the other hand, for Mrs King, Anastasia’s paternal grandmother, her daughter-in-law Mary was a troubled woman who had disgraced herself and thereby her family, by running away from her husband for no reason.
With both of her parents now dead, Anastasia intends to reconnect with her only remaining relative, and retrieve the life she had when she was a child. Upon arriving, however, she is confronted with a cold welcome by her grandmother. Mrs. King feels betrayed, and never forgave Anastasia for her choice of siding with Mary and leaving for Paris. For Mrs. King, her granddaughter had forfeited her birth right by choosing her unstable mother over her father, thereby contributing to his death. Mrs. King makes it clear that Anastasia is only there for a visit – and preferably not a long one.
Through the way in which Anastasia is treated by her grandmother we get a glimpse at the way Mary herself was held captive by Mrs. King’s need to assert power. From the beginning, Mrs. King had refused to acknowledge the marriage of her son and had never liked her daughter-in-law, whom she came to consider unbalanced, overtly sensitive and, in the end, mad. The atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic: Anastasia, much like her mother, is confronted to her grandmother’s barely disguised oppression and unrelenting disapproval. “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.”
Mrs King smiles in anger. She reigns over a house populated by ghosts. A parallel storyline conveys a similar kind of oppression: Miss Kilbride, a spinster who is Mrs. King sole friend, had had her one chance of getting married wrecked by her domineering mother. In contrast to Mary, she never fled, and simply yielded to the matriarch’s power. It remains ambiguous if she ever regretted her decision.
The strength of your novella lies in the fact that you do not compromise: you do not seek to excuse nor explain these women’s actions; you simply shed light into their irreconcilable tensions. There is much room for conflict here: generational conflict, family power struggles, tensions between emotional outbursts and self-control, the loyalty of a daughter for her mother, and the suffocating love of a mother for her son.
To make matters worse, no one is willing to move on emotionally. Both Anastasia and her grandmother are stuck in the past. Mrs. King feeds her grief for her son’s death by keeping his room exactly as he had left it. She never makes things easier for Anastasia, and never hides her ongoing resentfulness for her granddaughter’s choice to move to Paris: Anastasia’s presence is a reminder of the pain her mother had caused.
However, this is not the story of a young woman who falls victim of the vindictiveness of an older one. You do not make things easier for the reader. Our loyalties shift as the story unfolds. Anastasia is no innocent victim here: she imposes upon her grandmother her need to be forgiven for the choice she made in the past; she is not concerned over the ways her presence may hurt her grandmother. In a way, both are acting as children: Anastasia, for trying to evade the consequences of her past decisions; and Mrs. King, for never wanting to forgive, as if forgiveness would mean withdrawal of power on her part. Anastasia imposes love, while her grandmother imposes its denial. Both seek refuge in the past, and cling to their different versions of it. They refuse to give way to the other’s perspective, they refuse to build a common ground. Both refuse to take responsibility for the other’s pain.
As much as they want to retrieve what they had lost, there is no way back for any them. Anastasia did not find the home she was looking for when she returned; instead, she found out that that “home” never existed. Neither has Mrs. King found the culprit she was looking for in her granddaughter. They are stuck in the past, but their versions of it went amiss. They have no home to come back to; they are condemned to two interchangeable notions: either loneliness or permanent exile. “The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier.”
Your writing style gives the story a dark, nightmarish quality. You take your time at building the book’s unsettling atmosphere, as Anastasia, much like her mother, slowly falls apart. Wandering around Dublin, she sees her mother, and starts following her. Is Anastasia mad? Is it a ghost? We do not know, but of one thing we are certain: she is following on her mother’s steps.
She does exactly what her grandmother wants and was expecting her to do – but with a twist, a small moment of defiance. She fits the picture Mrs. King makes of her (an uncontrolled woman, close to madness, like her mother), but does it so as to inflict pain: “She stepped back barefoot into the street with her eyes turned expectantly up to the open window. Full of derision and fright, watching where their faces would appear she stared up and began to sing, sudden and loud as one in a dream, who without warning finds a voice in some public place.” For once, she wants to be the one who has the last word. She wants to be able to fit her grandmother into her own picture, too. She is also in need of culprits.
Yours is a homecoming story without a home. But aren’t they all? “She paused, thinking dreamily back. All the years in Paris seemed to be gathered and enclosed in one word, and she could not remember the word, although she sat familiarly thinking of it.” One only has to flip over the exile coin, and on the other side there will not be a home, but a blank.
“Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. Then what resentful wonder, and what half-aimless seeking. It is a silly state of affairs. It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze is always turned inwards.” – Maeve Brennan, The Visitor
About the book
- New Island Books, 2006, 120 p. Goodreads
- Atlantic Books, 2002. Goodreads
- First published posthumously in 2000
- The Visitor was originally written in the 1940s but not published until the year 2000, when a typescript of the novella, previously unknown, came to light in the archives of the University of Notre Dame. It is Brennan’s earliest work of fiction.
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was read for Reading Ireland Month.