The Visitor by Maeve Brennan


Anastasia thought, She lived for those evenings. I knew she would say that. She lived for those evenings. It is pitiful. We are all just the same, and yet we go over and over our little lives time and time again, looking at each other and talking earnestly.

She listened earnestly. (p58-9)

Anastasia has returned to her childhood home in Dublin, the home of her Grandmother, the formidable Mrs. King. Her parents are both dead, her mother recently so. She hasn’t been home in six years after leaving to join her mother who fled Dublin, her husband and his family for Paris.

Anastasia does not receive a warm welcome. The grandmother is as mean and pinched a person as you can imagine, wielding silence and propriety to passive aggressive perfection, determined to be left alone to mourn her son. Quietly manipulative, she has orchestrated her life around her son and Anastasia’s mother, hence Anastasia herself, were and remain intruders, visitors, who never belonged. Any hope of bringing her mother’s body back from Paris or of living peacefully in her childhood home will be dashed.

As a book almost entirely populated by women – the only important man, Anastasia’s father, is dead, and the only other men are passing strangers, taxi drivers, hotel porters – the novella faces some of the disturbing outcomes of patriarchy. All the women in the book are suffocating. Either they cleverly dominate others, maintaining a deferential air of social decorum, or they are subjugated; either they do as they are told or they are manipulative, cruel and domineering. And if all else fails, they can always go to the nuns – more women devoted to the house of the ultimate man, God – where their embarrassing behaviour can be shielded from the world.

Regardless of which role you take, dominator or dominated, you will be lonely. Hence why I chose the quote above. There is the suggestion that we are all earnestly trying to talk our life into something more than it is, hoping that we might find a way to step outside of the lines of play laid out for us, or to recast the past as a life that did, afterall, do just that.

The ending is ambiguous. Will Anastasia escape, rebel, or will she simply allow a rude gesture to stand for rebellion while doing exactly as her grandmother wishes?

This quiet and fiercely loaded work decisively points a finger at the poverty of life lived in waiting and longing. It’s a powerful piece. The characters feel like they walk from the page into life, haunting the reader. The Visitor asks us to wonder whether we are all nothing more than visitors. What does it mean to forge a home, to find a sense of self that is rooted in place?

It would be hard not to be affected by reading The Visitor and it makes me want to read more of Maeve Brennan’s work.

Next week I’m reading Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, which will be my first venture into the Man Booker Shortlist this year.