An Unexpected Guest
- Anne Korkeakivi
- Little, Brown
- 277 pp.
- Reviewed by Harriet Dwinell
- May 18, 2012
A British diplomat’s wife in modern-day Paris, the main character confronts moral and ethical issues by putting her husband’s career aspirations first, but then realizes she must search for redemption and decency. Ultimately, the novel is a celebration of a life unexpectedly set free.
Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell
Only on the inside cover flap of An Unexpected Guest will readers find the name of Mrs. Dalloway, central character of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel of the same name. But Mrs. Dalloway suffuses every fiber of Anne Korkeakivi’s debut novel, not so much as an homage but as a template. From soup to nuts, it’s all here: the 24-hour day during which the protagonist prepares and hosts a grand dinner party; the memories of the past that well up, leading each main character to weigh choices, specifically the decision to marry the safe, accepted partner rather than the daring person who aroused strong youthful passions, a person who in both novels unexpectedly materializes here and there as the day progresses. Death, violent death, war-related death, mars each day and intrudes upon the festivities. In the final sentence, the presence of each character is validated: “For there she [Clarissa Dalloway] was”; “It’s Clare here.” Yet the mood is quite different, for Mrs. Dalloway points eventually to death while An Unexpected Guest celebrates a life unexpectedly set free.
At the center of An Unexpected Guest is Clare Moorhouse — Clare Siobhan Fennally Moorhouse — the Irish-American wife of the British Minister to Paris, 45 years old, who for the past 25 years has been harboring a secret, living a lie, that she now fears will emerge. Twenty-five years before, passionately in love with a young Northern Irish revolutionary named Niall, Clare allows herself to fly secretly into Ireland, her belly wrapped in so many American hundred dollar bills that she looks ready to deliver a child. Relieved of the money in a seedy Dublin house, Clare waits, and waits, in a public park for Niall to come to her. He never does. Eight months later, she hears that Niall is dead. Clare then marries a kindly and decent English foreign service officer nine years her senior, gives birth to two children, and begins the task of remaking herself, “sanding away … all extraneous or undesirable elements … as though each year was a grand wave washing away a little more of her.” Nightly — still — she dreams of being clasped tightly in Niall’s “phantasmal arms.” Yet she feels some part of her is about to break free.
Terrified to step on Irish soil, fearful that somehow her crime is known, Clare has managed to avoid the Emerald Isle even though her family is steeped in all things Irish. But on this day, with the British Ambassador to France sidelined with viral pneumonia, Clare and Edward must host a dinner in the Ambassador’s stead in honor of the English Permanent Under Secretary, the man who will shortly appoint a new ambassador to Ireland, a post Edward has long desired. Clare knows that Edward “deserved Ireland. For three decades he had sat through endless meeting and downed endless cups of tea or coffee, and sipped almost as many glasses of wine. He’d nodded at appalling individuals and lent an ear to abysmal inventions of history … and tried to re-mold those atrocities into something better — a better world.” With little time to put together a dinner party for 12, Claire vows to do her best.
However, the day starts badly. Clare’s favorite and problem son, Jamie, 15, places a frantic call from his English boarding school where he is in some kind of trouble. Among other things, he has forged her name to a permission slip and left the school, turning up later unannounced at the Paris residency. Clare’s response is conniving, duplicitous and weak in its protectiveness. Carry on, however, she must, and in the course of her errands to buy the flowers and the asparagus and have her hair done, Clare meets a Turk who asks for directions to the doctor. And then, flashbacks to her short time with Niall flitting through her consciousness, Clare imagines she sees Niall’s face inside the market and in her hairdresser’s mirror and, finally, on a bench in the gardens of the Rodin Museum. Thrown off balance by the arrival of Jamie, the sightings of Niall, and now, the discovery on the television news that the Turk she met has been arrested for the murder of a French member of parliament — at the exact time but 20 miles away from her encounter with him — Clare doesn’t know what to do. The dinner party presses upon her and to get involved in the Turk’s release, with all its attendant publicity, would surely kill Edward’s chances for the Irish Ambassadorship. One more secret.
Once the dinner party is under way, in the final fifth of the novel, An Unexpected Guest picks up speed, its pace choked earlier by the author’s need to explain and by a bevy of unfortunate word choices and inept metaphors. (Which to choose? Perhaps the description of the guests arriving at the dinner party: “The first group entered and, shortly after, the second, like a curl unfurling in water, strands separating and fanning out, spreading over the furniture in the reception room.”) Metaphors aside, Anne Korkeakivi’s frontloading now pays off, and the novel, while on one level delectably describing a diplomatic dinner party, becomes filled with tension. What was son Jamie up to at his boarding school in England? What really happened in Dublin all those years ago, and where is Niall? Will the Turk suffer an unjust fate simply because he’s a man from the Middle East in a post-9/11 world?
In the end, An Unexpected Guest is more like a novel by Dan Brown than Virginia Woolf, for the after-party takes Clare on a mad chase across Paris and in and out of French security agencies in search of redemption and decency, winding up the 24-hour period in time to catch a morning flight to London to deal with Jamie’s school situation. Go Clare! Anne Korkeakivi brings the novel to a moving and satisfying conclusion.
Paradoxically, An Unexpected Guest is both less and more than the sum of its parts. There are too many characters with too many issues. There is IRA response to British actions AND Turkish defense of the Armenian catastrophe AND terrorist issues arising out of 9/11 AND idealistic young people mixed up in adolescent revolutionary activities AND disgruntled half-Scottish cooks with their own nationalist issues AND … . None of these issues is explored in depth, either in terms of concrete detail or raw emotion. It is hard to understand or feel any of them.
At the same time, the impact of the book exceeds these various parts, raising moral and ethical issues that can confront most anyone. This makes the novel a natural for book club discussions, and the author helpfully has a Reading Group Guide on her website. Be forewarned, the final question (at this writing) is, “What do you consider an ideal spring menu?” Definitely more Dan Brown than Virginia Woolf.
Harriet Douty Dwinell, a Washington writer and editor, is director of the editorial board of The Washington Independent Review of Books.