Kate is holding a dinner party for her brothers and sister-in-law, and she has prepared for it meticulously. Scallops with truffle oil, beef Wellington with balsamic vinegar-dressed vegetables on the side, chilled sancerre, even a baked Alaska waiting in the freezer for a triumphant finale. But there’s a gristly fact of importance hanging over the scene: it’s Halloween, the anniversary of Kate’s twin sister Elaine’s death.
The eponymous dinner party that forms the set-piece of the first part of the novel is gleefully, excruciatingly, uncomfortable. The guests are Kate’s two older brothers, Peter and Ray, and Ray’s wife Liz; their mother was invited, but whether she refused to come or simply felt unwelcome is never clarified. Muttered asides and details left palpably unspoken add to the uneasy atmosphere. Ray fusses over a concealed item in his jacket pocket, Liz drinks too much and Kate has whispered conversations in the kitchen with her brothers about her recent break-up with Liam, a married man.
When the evening draws to a close, tensions are at a high point. Aided by a weed brownie, Kate begins to recall the key moments in her life that led her to where she is today, through childhood trauma, alcohol issues, self-harm and eating disorders. Her childhood, and the months leading up to her father’s death in a car accident in 1999; her time at Trinity; 2018, which sees Kate feeling increasingly unfulfilled in her job, and the fragmenting of her relationship with Liam. The novel is slim, and very little is dwelt upon; we’re given fleeting, effective portraits of all points of Kate’s life.
But while the narrative revolves around Kate, it’s really their mother, Bernadette Gleeson, who rules over the family, and the novel, with an iron fist. Her relationship with her children is complex: jealous of their skills and opportunities one moment, resentful of the way her life changed after having them the next. Bernadette can walk into a room and immediately poison the atmosphere: one especially chilling scene takes place on an afternoon when Elaine and her mother are away. The rest of the family eat chilli and play cards — a scene of supreme calm and warmth until you realise they’re all on edge, waiting for the moment Bernadette will come home and find something (anything) to take offence over. Her hold over the family’s emotions is intense, upsetting, all too palpable.
Sarah Gilmartin treats us to a nuanced portrayal of the politics of grief in the family, laid out in all their minutiae. Kate feels she can never be whole again, part of her forever gone along with Elaine. There is a further soreness to this: Bernadette deliberately separated the girls, encouraging them to pursue different hobbies, to give them a separate sense of identity. Precious time they could have spent together has been lost. Their mother, on the other hand, is adamant that losing a child is a different beast, one her remaining children can have no concept of.
Where Dinner Party triumphs is in its balanced portrayal of family dynamics, from the believable relationships between the siblings to their evolving, complex feelings towards their mother. Kate’s mother is monstrous, blaming her children for her own unhappiness, love-bombing them, often pitting them against one another. Scattered flashbacks suggest a disturbing degree of physical violence and abuse towards the children. The fact it’s alluded to, with the protagonists unable to bring themselves to recall it properly, only adds to the horror.
But Bernadette’s portrayal is nuanced too, and Gilmartin doesn’t give us easy answers about her behaviour. Kate interprets her mother’s insistence that the twins dedicate themselves to different hobbies as a sign of insecurity, a desire to keep them apart and discourage their twin bond. Added to that is the implication that their mother is highly intelligent, and had higher hopes for her life. She relentlessly pushes all her children to pursue whatever they’re best at, regardless of how they feel about it. Mammy’s abusive behaviour is never excused; but she has the mark of all her children, and though she goes about it the wrong way, there is still the sense that she’s correct about most things. As a reader, you are torn over where to assign blame.
Dinner Party: A Tragedy is strongest when it’s working fully alongside its gothicism. Gilmartin has an incisive instinct for elevating dread in a scene. From the dark humour, Joe Orton-esque theatrical setting of the opening dinner party tableau, to Kate’s childhood, and the just-on-the-right-side-of-melodramatic horror of Elaine’s death, Gilmartin displays a deft hold over the gothic flavour of the story, while allowing proper weight to fall on the all-too-human tragedy.
Fiction: Dinner Party by Sarah Gilmartin
One, 272 pages, paperback €13.99; e-book £8.54