Sarah Gilmartin admits "there has been a game-keeper turned poacher headline” in the Irish press in the run-up to the release of her début novel, after putting in eight years as a literary critic for the Irish Times. And she was a very specific sort of gamekeeper, as her brief for the Times was to concentrate on, yes, débuts.
She has given that role up “as I thought it would be a bit strange to be reviewing débuts while having one published”. But, Gilmartin says, while her reviewing may or may not have influenced her first book, Dinner Party: A Tragedy (Pushkin ONE), it “gave me the opportunity to read quite diversely with different types of novels and genres”.
Gilmartin adds: “It’s certainly given me an idea of the range that there has been in Irish fiction in the past 10 or 15 years. Obviously there have been the big names like Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan and, this year, Megan Nolan. But one who has really stuck in my mind is Danielle McLaughlin, maybe because she is a little older than publishers seem to like their début novelists to be, and her style is different. So, yes, [being a critic] has been an eye-opener about the many different voices of Irish fiction and in that respect it has helped me.”
Gilmartin’s book is indeed a tragedy, with its centre the emotional fallout on Kate Gleeson and the rest of her family after Kate’s twin sister Elaine is killed. Stretching from the 1990s to the present day, from rural Ireland to Dublin, it is an exploration of decades-long grief and how things unsaid and unresolved can ravage a family.
That may all sound rather heavy, but there is a sprightliness and deftness of touch in Gilmartin’s writing, interspersed with wry and dark humour, that keeps the pages turning. Even the title is an example of this. The book opens on Halloween 2018, the anniversary of Elaine’s death, and Kate is having her brothers Ray and Peter and sister-in-law Liz around for dinner. The family usually gathers for the anniversary but Kate’s mother, the sometimes comically and sometimes monstrously self-centred Bernadette, has refused to make the trek into Dublin. During the meal, the rest of the Gleesons start to slag Bernadette off: “‘Peter, you tried.’ Ray pursed his lips. ‘And look, won’t we have a better night without her?... She’d have monopolized the evening. It would have been Dinner Party: A Tragedy.’ Ray tried to bow in his seat. Liz laughed. ‘Or Halloween Dinner: A Massacre.’”
While a lot of débuts straddle the “write what you know” dictum so close they are often roman-à-clefs, before you ask: no, Gilmartin is not a twin. She says: “I was really interested in the closeness of twins, how when they are young they are their own unit and don’t really need anybody else. And how as they grow older into their teens, there is a bit of displacement. But then I thought about going further, about what would happen to a twin after the death of the other—and most of the book is after the death. That idea of missing really interested me, about something going from a whole to a half.”
It is no accident that the title references a meal, as one of the manifestations of Kate’s grief and depression is an eating disorder. Gilmartin says: “One of the big questions of Dinner Party is, ‘How does somebody cope with not feeling good about themselves? How does somebody cope when they feel wrong or feel shame?’ I was interested in this idea that you can sublimate your bad feelings into something else. And I’m interested in the idea of nourishment in a person’s life—so how food can become a placeholder for emotional problems. Kate can’t fix herself but she recognises she can control this one aspect of her life. And of course, the irony of eating disorders in general, but particularly anorexia, [is that the sufferer is] actually stepping back from life, quite literally denying the body and what it needs to live.”
The long road
Gilmartin grew up in Limerick, the eldest of two children, and initially wanted to be an actress. But she did not get on the drama course at Trinity, and read English and German instead, then did a journalism master’s degree: “Not for any great love of news. But I loved writing and I knew I wanted to continue to do it after college.”
In her twenties she worked at a couple of business magazines and went traveling twice: “The first time I came back to Ireland there was a bad recession; the second time it was even worse.” With no media jobs, she landed one in the comms department at Danske Bank. Though she was not often overjoyed with the messaging she had to put out, she had an inspiring female boss, which in a roundabout way motivated her to get into arts journalism and start writing fiction seriously.
She wrote a novel in 2015 and signed with Sallyanne Sweeney at MMB (now Mulcahy Sweeney), but unfortunately there were no takers for the manuscript. Undaunted, Gilmartin doubled down and did a creative writing MFA at University College Dublin, studying under the likes of Anne Enright and Sebastian Barry. It’s where Dinner Party was born.
Was it difficult having no-one snap up that first attempt? “Hindsight is a great thing, isn’t it? At the time it was so disappointing. It’s not nice, having worked on something for a couple years, if it doesn’t go anywhere. But now I think the other book was more plot and not character-driven, and this one suits my style of writing and what I want to say. So yes, I’m happier that Dinner Party is my début.”
When the Gleeson twins were eleven years old, they ran away from home one afternoon. They made it as far as the old mill on the outskirts of town before their mother’s red Jeep pulled up beside them in the rough. The girls got into the back without a word. They didn’t look at each other, just knew somehow to accept defeat, because most things in life were to be accepted. Later that night, Elaine had woken Kate up, her cold fingers prodding Kate’s shoulder across the divide of their single beds. In the soft darkness of the room, Elaine had announced that one day soon they would get off the farm. They would, in fact, get off the island of Ireland entirely and be free to do whatever they wanted in some unknown country with no family ties at all. Kate, who was used to keeping her ideas to herself, especially in the middle of the night when she wanted to go back to sleep, didn’t point out that if the twins were together, they would always have family wherever they went. Instead she’d squinted at Elaine, pulled the duvet over her shoulder and rolled in to face her side of the wall.
Every year on her sister’s anniversary, Kate thought of that night with useless, superstitious longing. If only she could change it. If only she had said yes, for once.
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