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Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin: ‘A compulsive narrative drive’

Sarah Gilmartin’s Dinner Party: A Tragedy draws the reader into what appears to be an ordinary family landscape. A novel about belonging, relationships, loss and food that is powerfully and beautifully told, writes Patrick Maxwell.

What keeps families together? Perhaps the more pressing issue is what drives them apart.

Sarah Gilmartin’s probing new novel Dinner Party: A Tragedy poses these two questions, wrapped in the tale of two young twin girls forced to learn the single, awful answer to both of them.

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Twin sisters Elaine and Kate Gleeson were once vivacious Irish teenagers, always spoken of together, as a unit, the most exciting girls of the area, pushed hard by their ambitious, socially demanding mother. But as the family come together for a meal in 2018, their mother is spoken of in resigned tones, their father not at all, and Elaine’s name only sets off tears.

The tension in the family is palpable from the first scene, when we get a sense of the unspoken rules of the Gleesons, rules all the more obvious for their silence.

Then we are flung back to the world of 20 years before in all its youthful vigour; the tales of this family, told around the dinner table over happy, fractured and traumatic meals, is what drives this novel.

Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin is out now (Pushkin One, £16.99)

Gilmartin is a writer who readers will be pleased to know; there’s enough here to satisfy those looking for a compulsive narrative drive to accompany the flowing dialogue.

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As a novelist, she is blessed with being able to pluck ordinary discourse out of the world and put it into the mouths of her characters, although this can sometimes feel like the search for the most ordinary phrase, whether in tales of office woes or break-up fantasies, weakening the otherwise compulsive emotional nature of this book.

Gilmartin succeeds most in drawing us in to the tale of the twin girls, whose various hobbies of horse-riding and intimate moments of fashion choice for the new school year make Elaine’s premature death, which in many ways defines the book, ever more heart-rending.

Unlike anything you will have read before

Yet this is not, thankfully, a novel built solely around that loss, or the decline of Kate’s mother as the failure of her plans for the family becomes clearer.

It is in many ways a novel about food, about the importance of those get-togethers, those family meals and celebrations which can be listed and harked back to, especially as family members die, careers progress and new children appear.

What never changes is the sense that it’s got to be a success, that the rumbling tensions and recriminations inside the family never burst up around the formality of the dinner table.

As Kate says to herself at the end of the novel, “They were all strange, troubled individuals but beside each other, they were very clearly a family.”

That intractable feeling of belonging, beyond grief and bitterness, so powerfully told here, is what ultimately runs through each of those gorgeously written pages.

Dinner Party: A Tragedyby Sarah Gilmartin is out now (Pushkin One, £16.99)

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