If you’ve read my blog or followed me on Instagram for a little while at this point then you’ll probably know that I have a bit of a long history with the Man Booker nominees. I always get really excited when the longlist is released and desperately get my hands on loads of the books. Not only do I rarely get round to reading them but, inevitably, my favourites never end up on the shortlist. Maybe it’s my fault? Maybe I’m so cursed that any nominated book that I enjoy reading or like the sound of will never win the prize? My last read is one of those books. From the first time I heard about The Dinner Guest I was intrgiued. Telling the story of the author’s grandfather who was murderd before she was born, it sounded like nothing I’d ever read before. So, I bought it almost immediately and promptly left it on my shelves for ages. But, as I’m trying to make my through my unread books this year, I finally picked it up. It’s a pretty short book at only around 140 ages so I expected to have this done in a matter of days but, being me, I only finished it last night. And it’s safe to say I got a little emotional towards the end. But that’s been a fairly common theme this week. Let’s not talk about how many tears I shed watching the Gilette advert…
The Dinner Guest is a book that Gabriela Ybarra started writing after her mother died. The writer became frustrated with the obituaries being written for the woman who raised her but felt unable to capture her mother’s essence within her own writing. So she looked back over the last few months of her mother’s life and tried to come to terms with death being introduced to her life. However, Gabriela soon realised that her entire life had been haunted by death even if she hadn’t been completely aware if it. The Dinner Guest is her semi-fictional account of how her family’s past influenced her reaction to her mother’s passing.
It all started before Gabriela was born when her grandfather, Javier Ybarra Bergé, was kidnapped by extremist members of the Basque separatist group ETA. Javier had been born into one of Vizcaya’s most influential families and, after he had fought in the Spanish Civil War, became Mayor of Bilbao. In 1977, a group of four people arrived at his house carrying machine guns. They handcuffed his children and maid to a bed before taking Javier hostage. Days later they started making their demands, ending with a huge sum of money. After the family were unable to pay by the given deadline, Javier’s body was found in a clearing a month after he was taken.
Gabriela’s family remained under threat throughout her childhood but the family never discussed it. Not even when a bomb was sent to her father through the post. The threat of terrorism was large but Gabriela’s relatives refused to talk about it or the death of her grandfather. She only found out the story from other people in passing and relied on heavy research in order to write her book. As such, the story surrounding his capture has been filled in using her own imagination. It results in a strange mix of reality and fiction which the author is always keen to remind her reader about.
The second half of the book gives the account of her mother’s battle with cancer. As Gabriela had a key role in her mother’s care, this section has a much more personal and emotional resonance. The writer starts to think about her relationship to death and finally face up to a reality that has been staring her in the face for years. Though the book, in keeping with her family’s silence, is written in a fairly direct and minimal style. A lot of the narrative is written in a more analytical and matter of fact manner that may seem impersonal at times. But the second-half of the book is brimming with sadness. I think, far from being stoic, The Dinner Guest represents a very human reaction to an important death: trying to understand it anyway they can without completely falling apart.
People going into this book expecting a traditional narrative will be sorely disappointed and perhaps explains the shockingly low rating it has received from many. But this isn’t the story of a kidnap victim or a woman dying of cancer. This is the story of a young woman who is basically experiencing death for the first time despite the fact it has been hanging over her head since before she was born. It’s a strange but beautiful exploration of a key part of human existence and how ignoring that can have such a terrible influence on people. It isn’t a story but a meditation on silence and mortality set within the confines of her grandfather’s and mother’s deaths. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before but something I am glad I experienced.