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The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

After weeks and weeks of reading through and reviewing the Booker longlist, I spent a couple of weeks away from new literary releases and read a couple of backlist titles and a classic or two. Review of these will follow in the upcoming weeks but I want to use these past few weeks of the year reviewing some of the books I read in 2023 that I never had the time to write about. The first of these, is a short novella by an Irish author whose biography I read last year and who I could never quite stop thinking about ever since...

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.

It has been six years since Anastasia King has last seen Dublin’s streets. Having fled the city for Paris with her mother who was escaping a loveless marriage, the young woman finds herself a stranger in her hometown. Now an orphan, she returns to her childhood home and the only family she has left: her paternal grandmother, strict ad severe Mrs. King. The older woman has no intention of forgiving her granddaughter the abandoning the house she grew up in. Mrs. King’s anger is ferocious, she is all spite and does not lose an opportunity to let Anastasia know that she is most unwelcome in her home. Where the young woman has come to stay, the older woman cannot wait for her to leave.


Two protagonists who – at first glance – couldn’t be more different from each other struggle and strive to fulfil their opposing needs, thereby exposing more shared characteristics than either would of the two would ever want to admit. We meet two women who are equally self-obsessed and -righteous while striving for attentions and affection.


The novella was written in the 1940s, early in Brennan’s career, but not rediscovered until after her death and only published in 2001.

The Visitor is a chilling novella, for Mrs King radiates such cold contempt for Anastasia, it will send shivers down your spine. Brennan’s prose is economical and pared down, as if infected by the grandmother’s desire never to offer too much – but she doesn’t give us too little either. Her writing is lyrical despite its restraint, skilfully contained and incredibly elegant, only befitting a woman of her style. In her melancholic voice, she carves out the bleakest realities of life in a society obsessed with looks and oppressed by tradition. The King’s isolation is suffocating, the house in which they are trying to establish a home is claustrophobic with the weight of expectation and resentment. Maeve Brennan writes with such compelling assuredness that there is an irresistible drive to this ostensibly quiet novella, so best be prepared to read it in one sitting.


Published by New Island, 2001


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