I still have my first copy of The Visitor, given to me many years ago by a dear friend and great reader. I read the novella in a single sitting with astonishment and a reverence that has stayed since. It seemed incredible that I had never come across her work, that I had never so much as heard Maeve Brennan’s name.
The Visitor was published posthumously in 2000, after its discovery in archives acquired by the University of Notre Dame. It’s thought to have been written in the mid 1940s, and as such is one of Brennan’s earliest works of fiction. It tells the story of 22-year-old Anastasia returning to Dublin after her mother’s death. She is returning to the house where she was raised in Ranelagh, to live with her calmly cruel grandmother, Mrs King.
We first meet Anastasia on the final leg of her journey from Paris, where she had lived with her mother for six years, her mother having fled there after the break-up of her marriage and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving her with no remaining family other than Mrs King. It’s not much of a homecoming.
“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.”
From the first, the air is full of unspoken bitterness and resentment. It’s achingly sad. Brennan’s language fills every page simply and beautifully; it’s so precise and careful. She once told her friend and editor William Maxwell that she needed to be able to defend every comma, every full stop. I think what strikes me most is the embedded loneliness, these tragic ghosts occupying the same space separately.
“The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers.”
Brennan wrote for the outsiders, the shy, the dispossessed and the painfully self-conscious. She knew these things; she was a perpetual immigrant and outsider herself. She lived in a state of emergency — disastrous relationships, disastrous drinking, disastrous mental health. She died in a nursing home in Queens, New York, in 1993, her work almost completely forgotten. Thankfully, since then, she has had some great champions, helping her work find recognition. I am thinking here of Anne Enright, Sinéad Gleeson and Angela Bourke. So perhaps this is more of a reiteration rather than an actual recommendation, or maybe a note of gratitude.
‘Juno Loves Legs’ by Karl Geary is published by Vintage