Dinner Party: A Tragedy

Sarah Gilmartin

ONE, £16.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

“All we have is ourselves,” says a character in Sarah Gilmartin’s hugely accomplished debut novel. “All we have is family.” Dinner Party examines family ties – close bonds, loose links, knotty connections – and follows one member in her attempts to sever them. It makes for a compelling portrait of a woman losing her grip on reality and a perceptive study of enduring grief.

The Irish writer’s protagonist is Kate Gleeson. When we first meet her she is 32 and going nowhere fast in Dublin: she has recently been dumped by the married man she was seeing and, despite applying for bigger and better things, is stuck in a dead-end receptionist job. Sixteen years ago, her twin sister Elaine died. Instead of moping indoors alone, Kate has opted to mark the anniversary by inviting her brothers Peter and Ray and her sister-in-law Liz to her apartment for dinner.

During the meal Kate is distant, barely speaking and hardly eating. The evening is brought to an abrupt close when she cancels dessert by binning her meticulously created Baked Alaska. Once her guests leave, she muses on a life plagued by loss and spirals out of control.

From here, Gilmartin rewinds to various stages in that life. It isn’t a random trawl through the years. The narrative takes in key developments and seismic upheavals which throw light on Kate’s current state and show how her family became fractured and known as “the poor Gleesons”.

The first section plays out in 1999 on the family farm in Carlow. Kate and Elaine are in second year at secondary school and Elaine’s competitive nature has made them “best enemies” as well as best friends. What begins as an account of growing pains and teenage angst soon turns into a tense family drama with the twins’ volatile mother Bernadette in the lead role. Prone to “tempers” which flare up from the slightest disagreement, she routinely fights with her husband and her children, and in one instance delivers a knock-out blow: “I wish all of you were dead.” At the end of the section, her wish comes true for one family member.

Disaster strikes again when Elaine dies. “Two deaths in one family in a matter of years. You didn’t come back from that.” Kate tries to but fails. In 2006, she is a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and while no longer homesick she is still, “on her bad days, cripplingly twinsick”. As we approach the present day, we see her crashing and burning by skipping meals, drowning in booze and sabotaging relationships. “The best of her was gone,” we are told, at a point when it looks as if the rest of her might follow.

Throughout the book, Gilmartin jumps nimbly from one timeline to another and handles her back-to-front storytelling with aplomb. She also convincingly renders her heroine’s mental collapse without ever straying close to hysterics or maudlin sentimentality. However, some episodes take a while to get started, some drag on too long, and we quickly have our fill of the constant rounds of dinners.

Whenever the pace flags, it immediately picks up when Bernadette makes her forceful presence felt. Gilmartin’s dominant matriarch is a wrecking ball capable of shattering the peace and ruining convivial gatherings. Whether having an angry meltdown or triggering an electrifying showdown, she steals every scene.

Subtitled “A Tragedy”, Dinner Party skilfully depicts lives rocked by catastrophe and heartbreak. It should constitute a steady stream of doom and gloom but Gilmartin lets in more than enough chinks of light. Indeed, by the last act, in which blood proves thicker than water, there is cathartic release in witnessing Kate experience if not a change of fortune then at least a glimmer of hope and a stab at redemption.