Book Review – Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin

All we have is ourselves. All we have is family. 

Dinner Party: A Tragedy, the debut novel by journalist, author and playwright Sarah Gilmartin, is a novel which is honest with us, and warns us from the beginning that we are going to be taken on a bumpy ride. It tells the story of a family, and primarily our protagonist Kate, steeped in trauma and sadness, following family bereavement. Beginning with a meticulously planned dinner party to mark the anniversary of a death, we are aware of some building tension, some feeling that despite best efforts things are going to unravel. The novel then takes us back in time to reveal how things got to this point.

From the beginning, the emphasis is on family; the early chapters introduce us to the main family, but also give us background to the extended family, and there is very much a sense of the complex concept of Family, with all its history, dynamics, joys, flaws, and ties. As the novel progresses, we gradually learn more about each of the characters, gaining a better understanding of where they have come from, and how past events have shaped them along the way. 

As the novel opens we get a sense that Kate is an anxious character, keen to please but worried about failing; as the story unfolds, we discover just how deep her troubles run, and how many of her mishaps seem to stem from a tendency towards self-destruction; a consequence of the difficulties she has endured in her most formative years growing up. From her school years in the country, to her college and professional years in the city, we see how the events of her childhood have heavily impacted her sense of self, her friendships and relationships.

Kate’s siblings and sister-in-law are key characters in the novel, and Gilmartin deftly explores the dynamics of siblings in an authentic and vibrant way. Despite quarrels and making fun of each other, there is an evident fondness between the siblings, a sense of them wanting the best for each other after all they have been through. The novel considers how people and relationships change with the years, and how family trauma can create friction but also create deeper bonds. 

Kate’s mother, Bernadette, is a character who becomes progressively more interesting as the novel unfolds. She is depicted as a woman who is often volatile, prone to extreme moods, cruel and jealous of her own children; she is also a woman who, according to insights given by Kate and remarks made by her siblings, is almost always beautifully turned out, is intelligent, and can light up a room at the drop of a hat when she chooses to. Despite how monstrous she is on so many occasions, we see other moments throughout the novel where her children feel protective of her, or offer her affection; where jokes are shared and where she has them in tears of laughter. While this humour could be a coping mechanism, we do get a sense that some of these moments stem from a genuine place. We learn that, despite everything, Kate has held some love, and appreciation, for her mother over the years, as well as a desire to please her and be loved by her; at the heart of the theme of complex family dynamics and relationships, lies the particularly difficult and conflicted relationship that can exist between a child and parent.

The mother interrupts one family scene between Kate, her father and siblings, bursting in like a whirlwind, hurling criticism and putting everyone on edge. Yet, soon she has them in floods of laughter.

Mammy had brought their boring little kitchen to life.

The nursery rhyme about the little girl who “when she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid” comes to mind. Kate and her siblings’ actions often seem to be driven by the desire to keep the horrid Bernadette at bay.

This makes her a character of psychological intrigue, a character with two very opposing sides to her. Gilmartin only ever hints, never fully spells out, what may have made Bernadette this way; proving a much more engaging way of handling this, than had her backstory been fully revealed. Throughout the novel, Gilmartin’s skill, and joy, in developing characters is evident; from the small behavioural details and way they present themselves, to the way they interact with others, and our exclusive glimpse at Kate’s inner turmoil. In Kate we have a compelling protagonist who has been left traumatized, with an almost non-existent sense of self-worth or identity. Gilmartin gives us regular insights into Kate’s anxiety-driven analyses of the simplest of occurrences, allowing us a sense of the psychological exhaustion she has been experiencing for years. Yet every now and again we see glimmers of resilience, and flashes of resistance to being dragged down a path with a dead end.

The eponymous dinner party scene is just one scene in the novel where family gather around for food; the dinner table, an intimate setting which draws people together around a central focal point and forces them to look each other in the face, has for a long time been a key setting in books and movies where taboo subjects are addressed, tensions created, secrets revealed, and issues resolved. Gilmartin seems to take delight in developing, and bringing to life, these simple, everyday family scenes, which can hold so much meaning, and reveal so much about people.

A key theme of the novel is exploring how families deal with grief and bereavement; how events change dynamics within families, the different ways in which people learn to cope, and how trauma can affect us in later life. Gilmartin broaches and explores several difficult issues, not shying away from them but also not always spelling things out for us, requiring the reader to engage and piece the puzzle together ourselves. The novel also explores the ties of family; from people needing to adapt their life plans to care for family in need, to how, no matter how bad family is, they are still family and we often inevitably return despite misgivings. For readers with complex family relationships, Gilmartin’s way of exploring this issue, and considering how individual understandings and responses can change over the years, ensures that this will be a compelling read.

In terms of structure, this novel jumps back and forth in time, which serves to build tension but also gives deeper insight from all perspectives. A certain ebb and flow to Gilmartin’s writing further serves to build tension; she gives us simple family moments of happiness, but they are always imbued with a feeling that they won’t last, that something, or someone, is about to erupt, and that that happiness will be pulled away again.

As the novel progresses, the writing gains fluidity and depth; there is a change of gear, a sense that Gilmartin really begins to find her rhythm, from the second chapter of the book onward, especially when probing the inner workings of dealing with grief. There is a particularly beautiful and heart-wrenching passage towards the middle of the book, exploring Kate’s sense of loss, and feeling lost. 

Now, although she was still living, the best of her was gone. On bad days, even the most obvious things seemed impossible – how to cross a road, use a phone, how to speak.

Gilmartin is a prize-winning writer of short stories, and this very much comes through in this novel; a novel which is character driven, with several key scenes in intimate, centralised settings, which take on an almost stage-like quality of heightened tension. This is very much an Irish novel, filled with Irish expressions, traditions and community dynamics that most Irish readers will be able to relate. Yet, there is a universality to the complexity, camaraderie, rivalry and tensions of the family dynamics, which draws this novel beyond Ireland.

Dinner Party: A Tragedy is a compelling, poignant and often heart-wrenching read, dealing skillfully with sensitive and complex issues.

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A big thank you to Tara McEvoy from Pushkin Press for having me on this blog tour, and for sending me out a hard copy of this novel. 

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Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press, and was released on September 16th 2021.

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Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist as well as a prize-winning writer of short stories. She is co-editor of the anthology of Stinging Fly Stories (2018) and has an MFA from UCD. She won Best Playwright for her short play Match at the inaugural Short+Sweet Dublin festival. Her short stories have been listed for the Sean O’Faoilain Short Story Award, the RTE Francis McManus Short Story Award and Hennessy New Irish Writing. Her story ‘The Wife’ won the 2020 Máirtín Crawford Award at Belfast Book Festival in June.

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