[Pushkin Press; 2021]

Over the last five years, critical attention on the contemporary Irish novel has centered on a young generation of novelists reimagining the comedy of manners, especially Sally Rooney’s megahits Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), and Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). But Sarah Gilmartin’s Dinner Party: A Tragedy is the product of a different literary genealogy. Its depiction of family dysfunction in the wake of tragedy suggests parallels with Gilmartin’s mentor, Anne Enright, who established herself as a doyenne of probing melodrama with the Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering (2007). In a similar vein, Dinner Party engages with the long shadow childhood trauma casts and the grim coping mechanisms that often accompany it. Set in 2018 Dublin, the opening scene depicts the titular dinner party, as Kate Gleeson hosts her family to mark the 16th anniversary of the death of her twin sister, Elaine. Yet an eclectic playlist and an opulent spread — scallops, beef Wellington, baked Alaska — create only the thinnest veneer of domestic harmony. As the narrative spirals back in time to their childhood in County Carlow, it becomes clear that all are still reeling from the untimely losses of their father and sister, as well as the instability of their cruel mother. Kate struggles with an eating disorder, a failed affair, and a stifling dead-end job. Her older brother, Lucas, returned to the family farm despite his attempts to emigrate to California. Their other brother, Ray, tries to repair a marriage his drinking has damaged. Though deftly rendered, their sibling dynamic is initially a red herring for the novel’s core focus — and a clue about this point may lie in the limits of comparison with Enright’s The Gathering. While a sister’s unbreakable bond with her lost brother forms a crux of that narrative, Dinner Party’s twin sisters had a troubled relationship due to their mother’s favoritism. Kate, wracked with survivor’s guilt when her golden girl sister dies, drives the storyline through multiple time periods and a cacophony of family discord. Her lonely search for identity and fulfillment, exemplified by disordered eating and the novel’s fragmented structure, is a motif that elevates family melodrama into an intriguing portrait of female interiority. 

For such a compelling portrait of a woman on the brink, a dinner party seems an unusual start: communal rather than introspective. But the minutest details in its opening pages offer hints about how this novel links food with dilemmas of space and control. As she navigates a crowded Dublin Bus route in the hours leading up to the dinner, Kate finds herself stuck next to a man eating a “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.” To drown out the raucous passengers, she imagines “the evening’s recipes in her head, visualizing the photo of the baked Alaska, the sheen of the meringue, the torched golden tips.” At first glance, it seems a banal moment, affirming long-held jokes and gripes about how men and women embody space differently on public transit and elsewhere. But the uneven depiction of food, shifting from a stomach-churning concoction to an image of perfection, reveals a darker preoccupation at the heart of Kate’s relationship with her mother and late twin.

As the narrative drifts back in time to Carlow in the 1990s, we discover that Kate’s volatile mother resented cooking. “She controlled the kitchen and . . . did not seem to like the place at all . . . And she was always looking for compliments, too, which was especially hard when she made the cauliflower dish that tasted like vomit.” Her instinctive recoil from the bus passenger’s breakfast sandwich clearly has deep roots. Food and cooking become even more charged in the aftermath of her father’s death in a car accident. Seemingly reconnected, she and her sister Elaine prepare for their 16th birthday party with “a crazy diet from Cosmopolitan” consisting of “nothing but soup, cranberry juice and rice cakes.” It elicits a rare moment of approval from their mother, who “had secretly been proud of them.”

When Elaine dies in a horse show-jumping incident — a second blow to the family — Kate’s restrictive eating acquires almost existential significance. She pursues self-destruction with grim minimalism. Convinced she should have died instead, she decides to occupy as little space as possible. If anything, hunger becomes a last refuge as conventional markers of femininity elude her into adulthood. Adding insult to injury, her mother and sister-in-law “team up to list the things missing in [her] life: a career, husband, a family.”

In its most poignant moments, the narrative can feel like the equivalent of opening a Russian matryoshka doll. The profound grief and trauma buried beneath layers of familial discord, self-deprecation, and the selfishness of a married lover become subtly apparent. They are evident when she suffers a bone fracture after going for a hungover run on the anniversary of her sister’s death. They rise to the fore when she overhears her university friends mocking her as “creepy” for “pick[ing] at her food like a hummingbird” while she stands nearby feeling “invisible.” They settle beneath the surface as she waxes and primps for a late-night rendezvous with Liam, who disavows her when they happen to run into his childhood friends. In 2018, cleaning up after the immaculate dinner party where she ate nothing, she reflects on “all the people lost to her, all the years lost to hunger.” Perhaps appropriately for a Halloween occasion, Kate has transformed herself into a ghost, haunting the novel as she folds despair into increasingly compact spaces.

These glimpses of internalized sorrow beg the question: What sort of narrative structure could accommodate them without giving way to melodramatic doom and gloom? What could be a weepy novel — encompassing two sudden deaths and many verbal skirmishes — never feels glib or unearned. It manages to depict Kate’s quiet misery without succumbing to its weight. Beginning with the dinner party, subsequent sections meander between Dublin and Carlow and back in time to earlier periods: 1999, 2006, several months throughout 2018, and 2019.

What is the significance of these fragmented shifts in place and time? On one level, this careful interplay between light and heavy, between time frames, could seem like further echoes of Enright’s The Gathering. Yet a narrower scope of just two decades feels more staid than The Gathering’s surreal spirals into deep generational scars. Though Dinner Party avoids overt stylistic experimentation, the pervasive critical move for contemporary Irish fiction would be establishing a through-line to Joyce. But if the high priests of modernism can be invoked at all here, Dinner Party’s formal structure and import feel oddly closer to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). Similarly, that novel focuses on painful epiphanies and shifting alliances as death and time strike at the heart of a family. Even more significantly, it depicts one dinner party the matriarch hosts as a fleeting but effective art form. Yet the parallels end there. Although Kate’s brother, Ray, praises her as “an artist” for a flawless beef Wellington, it becomes apparent that the chilly perfection of her dinner party is emblematic of her own crisis. To restore her own equilibrium, she has to relinquish the dual roles of domestic goddess and hunger artist. By the novel’s conclusion a year later on Halloween 2019, she is infinitely happier eating a pizza with only Ray for company. A clue to her growth lies in the relationship between the novel’s structure and her own realization at this point: “ . . . There was no ending when it came to family, only beginning, and beginning again.” In this nonlinear progression, each stage of her own and her family’s development carries equal weight. She is, at once, a child coping with her parent’s fraught relationship; a teenager grappling with mortality after loss; an accomplished university student struggling to fit in; and a world-weary adult coming to terms with her troubled history. The past remains tangled with the present and future. While this approach can entail work on the part of the reader — friends, love interests, habits shift rapidly over time — it also helps to capture shared memory of those loved and lost. Even if Sarah Gilmartin’s debut novel elicits inevitable associations with Irish intellectual and artistic heavyweights, this portrait of mourning and redemption stands on its own.

Emily Hershman received a Ph.D. in English at the University of Notre Dame. Her writing has appeared in the James Joyce Quarterly and elsewhere.   

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