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Dinner Party by Sarah Gilmartin: Escaping from maternal control

Book review: Drama swirls around family trying to free themselves of Mammy’s influence

Dinner Party: A Tragedy
Dinner Party: A Tragedy
Author: Sarah Gilmartin
ISBN-13: 978-1911590569
Publisher: One
Guideline Price: £16.99

Dinner Party begins with a dinner given by Kate Gleeson in her Dublin apartment at Halloween. Kate has spent hours cooking a heavy menu: scallops, beef Wellington, baked Alaska topped with piped meringue. Her guests are her two brothers, Ray and Peter, and Peter’s wife, Liz. They gather to remember Kate’s twin sister Elaine, who died as a teenager in 1999.

Kate can cook but she can’t eat. Elaine’s death triggered years of disordered eating, self-destructive choices in careers and relationships and half-suppressed family conflict. Liz, the outsider, gives voice to tension, suggesting a dangerous game in which family members describe each other in one word.

The game is obviously a device for introducing us to the cast and their backstories, but it’s an effective device. Kate (“controlled”, “skinny”, her brothers say) is brittle and anxious. Liz is provocative. Ray’s a “sap” who cries over children’s films. And they don’t get to Peter because even the idea of finding a word for their absent mother, Bernadette, derails the conversation.

The maternal venom reaches from the family farm in Carlow to Dublin and, we find, far beyond, following Peter’s aborted attempt to move to America and determining the siblings’ relationships with each other long after they achieve ostensible independence.


Bernadette is “delicate”, Liz says. “Maudlin”, Ray adds, but only while his brother, who calls her “ladylike” and “a fine figure for a woman of age”, is out of the room. “Undiagnosed”, Kate blurts out, and there’s an extent to which the rest of the book is that diagnosis, taking a history, examining the symptoms, suggesting a prognosis for the monstrous Mammy down on the farm and the adult children who must and cannot escape her.

Sarah Gilmartin writes well and with lightness of touch about the half-light of Dublin winters in a small apartment, the interaction of street life with domesticity. Between the family and wider community in Carlow, Kate’s recollection of her student life at Trinity and her working life and relationships in the book’s 2018 present-day, there is a large cast of characters, each distinct and memorable.

The untimely deaths in the family are both consequences of Bernadette's behaviour, although treated by the characters and to some extent by the book as outrageous misfortunes

The novel interweaves three timelines and locations with aplomb, paying particular and convincing attention to the domestic geographies of childhood, the excitement and danger of eavesdropping on the stairs, the bedroom as both refuge and place of confinement, garden sheds and dens for plotting rebellion but also where the lack of adult surveillance gives the biggest and strongest children alarming power.

The central challenge of this book for its writer is to manage the disturbed and disturbing mother who sits at the centre of the web, constantly threatening to displace Kate as the protagonist as she usurps her agency in daily life. Kate recalls a childhood in which her mother locked her in the garden shed for the night, ripped up her daughters’ clothes and then laughed over “the waste”, forbade them to wash their hair, smashed up birthday presents, beat and injured all her children when the mood took her, and at the same time exacted affection and consideration.

The untimely deaths in the family are both consequences of Bernadette’s behaviour, although treated by the characters and to some extent by the book as outrageous misfortunes. Bernadette is unchanged by these losses, enjoying and demanding more attention for herself at the funerals and continuing to hurt and belittle her surviving children in the following decades. Her intermittent laughter can seem cruel and unhinged rather than making her the rounded character that would justify her surviving children’s ongoing tolerance, and indeed that of the reader.

The novel’s drama swirls around Kate and her siblings’ ambivalent and intermittent attempts to escape their Mammy, familiar territory for the Irish novel in the last few decades. In some ways this is a story with no possibility of resolution – as we’ve known at least since Freud and probably Hamlet, you can’t escape the parents in your head – but the ending feels as if it’s trying to offer a transformation that hasn’t really been achieved.

When she’s not there, the siblings speak of her more openly, but Mammy is still in control of her children and the stories they tell themselves.

Sarah Moss’s latest novel, The Fell, is out in November

Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and academic