‘At the turn for the Northside quays, the bus missed the lights. A woman in front of Kate said to the person next to her, ‘There’s so much traffic we’re going backwards.’ The seatmate agreed and the conversation went relentlessly round, each of them talking over the other, saying the same things, until Kate felt that she might never get off the bus. The windows had fogged again and the vents at her feet piped sour heat up to her face. She popped a button on her coat, elbowing popped a button on her coat, elbowing the man beside her by mistake. ‘Sorry,’ she said. He ignored her and leaned forward for another bite of his breakfast bap. The yolk split, smearing the ketchup like pus into blood. Kate moved as far away from him as she could, which was not very far at all. Her right ear started to ring, a kind of static fuzzing inside her head. Across the aisle, a toddler screamed, his sharp little cries sucking the light right out of the sky.’
This book was one of those ‘slight’ novels but it really does pack an emotional punch. As I started to read Dinner Party, my brain meandered back to my university days and the first time I read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which was like nothing I’d ever read. The above quote, following Kate through the city as she shops for the dinner party she’ll be holding that evening, reminded me of the scene where Clarissa Dalloway takes the omnibus. The writing is simply beautiful, we’re on a bus ride so nothing much happens but everything happens all at once. We get such a sense of Kate from this short passage: her anxieties, her fears, the irritability with other passenger’s foibles, the disgust with food and how her senses become overloaded to the extent that a baby crying takes all the joy out of her.
Today Kate is cooking a meal for her siblings to mark the sixteenth anniversary of their sister Elaine’s death. Every year the Gleeson siblings gather, but this year is a little different. Elaine was Kate’s twin, and she still feels utterly bereft:
‘But a twin can never get over a twin. It was like someone asking you to forget yourself.’
Kate has decided to host the dinner party for her two brothers and her sister-in-law in the flat she plans to leave soon after. As the four settle round the table, to enjoy the food Kate has taken so much trouble over, they begin to talk about their mother. Peter defends her as he always does, but Ray and his wife Liz challenge his excuses for her cantankerous nature. When they leave, earlier than she expected, Kate performs the mental ritual of counting the number of bites she’s taken. Several life events seem to have plunged her into a crisis. She has just been rejected by the married man she’s been having an affair with, which somehow seems worse now she’s thirty-three. Her work holds no challenge and could be done by a junior colleague and she has fewer friends to support her. This is not her first mental crisis, they started in her third year at university when she was hospitalised for anorexia. Counting bites and controlling her food offered an escape from the pain of loss that never seems to go away, not to mention her mother’s anger and constant criticism. The author then takes us to a year later, as another dinner party marks the seventeenth anniversary of Elaine’s death but this time things are different for all three siblings.
This is a psychologically complex novel and I loved that, being a therapist. Kate is constantly over-thinking, re-evaluating and performing rituals in an exhausting monologue that seems constant for her. As the product of a critical parent, her self-talk is largely negative. She has internalised her mother’s criticism and now carries it with her wherever she goes. It stifles her ability to self-soothe, a vital skill for adult life that allows us to make ourselves feel better. Instead she needs constant input and encouragement from something outside herself, often a person who shows merely a hint of kindness or approval. However, another means of gaining approval is through achievement and Kate is definitely an over achiever, constantly setting herself standards and markers against which she can better herself and feel more valued:
‘She could never pin down the problem; it was a shifty kind of thing, something to do with routine. Shopping in the same supermarket, buying the same foods, wearing the same outfit in different colours, or even with things she enjoyed like music or exercise, running the same stretch of beach, having to reach the railing she’d reached the day before—all these arbitrary markers of success or failure that seemed to somehow captivate and imprison her. Devika said it was just the break-up blues making her feel inadequate, but the truth was, it had been going on for years, long before Liam, this impulse to do things to exhaustion. It was extreme living. Or it was living for two. Wringing the sponge, Kate felt the energy leave her body. She sat on a stool and began to count. Three. Then five—no four—it was only four. And a sprout. Less than ten bites in total, a miracle with all the food.’
The author has created incredible multi-dimensional characters here with all their flaws and imperfections on show. We spend a lot of time inside Kate’s head and it’s a very tiring place to be. Even shopping and cooking for this simple dinner becomes a marathon as she stretches her culinary abilities with a Baked Alaska for dessert that doesn’t make the table. However, don’t think this is a litany of misery. The author’s depiction of the sibling’s dreadful mother is almost comical in it’s awfulness. Yes it’s a very dark sense of humour, but I understand it. This is just one of the defensive strategies the siblings have; if they find her funny it doesn’t hurt so much. Despite Kate being our doorway into this world, it’s important to remember that Elaine’s death isn’t just Kate’s loss. This is a family tragedy and everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Kate seems to know that their mother’s irascibility has been heightened by the loss of her daughter. All the remaining siblings know they can’t measure up to a ghost. The Elaine their mother misses probably isn’t a real person any more. A mother doesn’t just grieve her daughter, she grieves the life she’d imagined for that child: the achievements and milestones of life like her wedding day, or a first grandchild. Death has erased Elaine’s flaws, creating a saint-like girl that no living child could live up to. Perhaps this is why the siblings hold their anniversary dinner without their mother, or maybe because her criticism has subtly damaged each of them, just in different ways. Yet, their mother isn’t a two-dimensional monster, which she could have become in a lesser writer’s hands.
I liked the structure of bookending the story with each, very different, dinner party. I could imagine the book being turned into a play or screenplay very easily. I loved the forays back into the past, to see all the siblings but mainly how Kate and Elaine related to each other. The past sections truly do inform the present, either explaining a sibling’s present behaviour or simply showing us the depth of what this family have lost. With themes of mental ill health, anorexia and suicide this isn’t an easy read at times, but nor should it be. The author is showing us how tragedy can be a legacy, one event leading to inter generational pain and trauma. I found her depiction of this moving, but also helpful in a strange way. Some parts are painful, especially if you’ve lost someone very important to you like I have. However, it’s also enlightening and leaves you feeling that you’re not alone in the world. That there are other people who have once felt and thought like you. The trick is to stop the pain passing on to the next generation, to let the trauma end with you. This is a wise and beautifully written debut from an author I’ll be watching out for in the future.
Published by Pushkin Press, 16th Sept 2021.
Meet The Author
SARAH GILMARTIN is a critic who reviews fiction for the Irish Times. She is co-editor of the anthology Stinging Fly Stories and has an MFA from University College Dublin. She won Best Playwright at the inaugural Short+Sweet Dublin festival. Her short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, New Irish Writing and shortlisted for the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Award. Her story ‘The Wife’ won the 2020 Máirtín Crawford Award at Belfast Book Festival.